10 ways the nonprofit sector must adapt to the new reality

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butterfly-1716535_1280Hi everyone. Two quick announcements: First, my organization is hiring an on-staff capacity building coach. This is a high-level position focused on supporting grassroots organizations led by communities of color. If you believe in strengthening communities of color to advance social justice, and you love organizational capacity building and working with small grassroots organization, please apply. It is more urgent than ever for us to support our community-based organizations to be civically engaged, so this position is critical. But no pressure or anything! (Make sure you like unicorns and Oxford Commas, though…)

Second, please read my article in Chronicle of Philanthropy on what funders must do in light of the new political reality. It’s hilarious, and I added pictures of bunnies and puppies. OK, it’s deadly serious, and there are no pictures of baby animals at all. Given the urgency of the work, we can no longer afford to continue the same destructive funding philosophies and processes that have been hampering nonprofits’ abilities to carry out our missions.

While funders discuss how to adapt, we nonprofits need to do things differently too. Here are my thoughts on a few areas that we need to consider. This is by no means comprehensive. Or particularly groundbreaking. Some of these are ideas I have written about before, and some I will expand on in future posts:

  1. We must end the Nonprofit Hunger Games. The fighting for resources with the ultimate goal being the survival of our own nonprofits or our own jobs needs to end. We must think about what is best for our community members in the long term, even if that means our organization may get reduced funding or even possibly have to close. I know this is not easy—our positions and ability to feed our families are on the line—but this is the hallmark of our profession, to work ourselves out of a job. Let’s mean it. Let’s stop hoarding donors, funders, even clients. Let’s be generous with one another. More details here.
  1. We must collaborate with one another more, on programming and operations. Nonprofits are starting to share offices more, which reduces operating costs. We can go further by exploring creative strategies such as sharing finance, HR, and other staff. Many small, grassroots organizations, especially those led by marginalized communities, do amazing work, but they are forced to spend a lot of time and energy on operations and administration. Under more efficient models of operations, all this time and resources can be channeled toward vital programming and advocacy work.
  1. We must all be engaged in advocacy. All organizations, whether direct-service or advocacy, must be engaged in advocacy in some level. All boards and staff should get training on what activities are allowable, since there is a lot of confusion about what 501c3s can do. We can certainly do a lot more than we think we are legally allowed to do. Resources are needed (and funders need to step up), but we can all engage in various levels, from making phone calls to our legislators, to showing up to town hall and school board meetings, to writing op-eds in our local newspapers. Here’s a simple challenge for every organization reading this: Write and get one op-ed published before the end of the calendar year on whatever issues are relevant to your mission. I’m going to call this The Op-Ed Challenge, #OpEdChallenge
  1. We must promote civil discourse. The rancor and division on our society has reached a new and disappointing level. We have lost the ability to empathize, to take others’ perspectives even if we don’t agree with them, and to disagree and provide feedback without attacking people’s character or motivation. (And that’s just between me and my partner regarding who is a better driver). We nonprofits can model the way by leading community conversations, grounded by mutual civility and respect. We should teach the kids in our programs on how to have collegial conversations and debates. We can bring people with diverse perspectives to have productive dialog. But first, we must ensure our board, staff, and volunteers can practice these things. Here’s last week’s post with some suggestions. Funders, fund this stuff.
  1. We must strengthen partnerships with other sectors. I wrote earlier about our need to collaborate with the for-profit and government sectors, as well as with the media. This is now more urgent for us to do. We have to work more effectively with the other sectors to protect our vulnerable neighbors. They can exert tremendous influence—a sports team threatening to pull out of a city in protest of an oppressive policy, covered by the media, for example. We need to build relationships with our friends in the other sectors, not just as donors and sponsors, but as strategic partners to protect the progressive gains our society has made. Join local chambers of commerce. Make friends with media professionals.
  1. We must promote equal partnerships with funders. The wall between nonprofits and funders has stymied a lot of progress in our sector. Our community cannot afford that any more. Though some funders are moving towards a more trust-based partnership, there are still many destructive funding philosophies and practices—such as focusing on overhead and sustainability—that actively prevent nonprofits from achieving our missions. Because of power dynamics, funders must take the lead to break down these barriers. However, we nonprofits also perpetuate some terrible habits, including not being transparent about challenges, not providing feedback and pushback, and sometimes unfairly attacking funders without providing solutions. We have to work toward an equal and authentic partnership.
  1. We must focus resources on strengthening marginalized communities. Hate crimes have increased in recent days. We must target our resources and programming to protect our most vulnerable community members. Funders must support organizations led by these communities, including changing funding practices so that it’s not just the best written grant proposals or the strongest relationships that receive funding. Larger organizations, please be sure you are not perpetuating Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE). And we must all invest more resources in outreach and hiring in order to ensure our teams are representative of the people we serve.
  1. We must pay more attention and provide more resources to rural communities. If there’s one big lesson from the election, it is that a huge segment of our community has been neglected and disenfranchised. Rural communities are often neglected when we talk about marginalized communities. All of us in this sector need to have a better understanding of the dynamics between rural and urban communities and the intersectionality of poverty, race, and other factors. We need to support organizations in rural areas, advocating for increased resources.
  1. We must move toward community-centric fundraising. A critical task of our sector is to heal divisions within our community. There is so much “othering” going on; as a colleague writes, “We’re fast becoming a nation of haters.” Unfortunately, as I wrote earlier, we do tend to cater to our individual donors, putting them in the center and further perpetuating this notion that somehow they exist separate from the people we/they are helping. We need to foster the belief that we all live in one community, that all kids are our kids, that all people are our neighbors, and that the well-being of our neighbors directly affect our own well-being and that of our families. We should be appreciative of our donors, but our community must be the center of everything we do. More on this later.
  1. We must own and use the power and influence of our sector. Nonprofits employ more than 10% of the private sector workforce, is the third largest (and growing) workforce in the country behind retail and manufacturing, contributes over $900 billion to US economy in 2013, and leverage $373 billion in charitable giving in 2015. (Here’s more info compiled by Independent Sector about how awesome we are). Our sector is an economic force to be reckoned with. But we are also extremely busy doing important stuff, so we tend to let society run over us. We need to own our power and use it to protect and advance the critical work we are doing. The time for nonprofits to be overly humble and self-effacing is over. We have to be louder and more assertive about the needs of our community and of our sector. Let’s be more vocal with our public officials and the media about the importance of our sector. And if your #OpEdChallenge is not about a specific issue, think about speaking up on behalf of the entire field.

Of course, all of these things can only be achieved if we the professionals in our sector are fairly compensated, have decent benefits, and are not sitting on crappy chairs help together with duct tape.

Let me know your thoughts on other things our sector needs to do. And happy Thanksgiving this week. I am grateful for the work that you do every day to build a strong, vibrant, and inclusive community.

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  • Suzanne Hoban

    Vu – bad news as the holiday season starts. What will we non profit EDs eat???? http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/ucm529967.htm?source=govdelivery&utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery

  • Tricia Baker

    You’re totally correct as usual, Vu!
    I’d add:
    Prepare to help your outplaced employees to find work;
    If your organization has real estate with a “back yard,” start a community garden for employees and/or participants;
    Prepare to rent out part of your owned property, or sell your property and rent a smaller facility.
    I wrote more about these on my blog, “Tales from a Wise Woman” if you want to see more (just FYI.)
    We all have to plan for Recession and, as Vu says, begin new collaborations.

  • Katie

    This is a fantastic post. I’ve still been thinking about your post from last week so you have certainly hit a nerve with me. Check out this fascinating article from New York Magazine with similar thoughts: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/11/how-the-loyal-opposition-will-work-in-trumps-america.html

  • Elizabeth Testa

    Clear, concise, and incredibly timely. Thanks, Vu.

  • RTF

    This is the best piece I’ve read so far about how nonprofits and social enterprises need to think differently now. I’m particularly glad you see the potential as well as the challenges. I think nonprofits who are bold, creative, and willing to consider strategic partnerships will be best suited for the times ahead.

  • Hugh Share

    Thanks for the great article, I think it’s right on. I’d like to toss in a few more for consideration, based on my experience from the business side partnering with NGOs over many years. I think there’s room for improved strategic planning and use of systems to enable better metrics, goals, and reporting, and faster, more consistent results. This may sound boring but simple things like project planning and tracking may sometimes be lacking. I’d also like to see more partnerships from different entities – NGOs, governments, businesses, and communities to help ensure outcomes are sustainable and scalable.