Monday, December 20, 2010

The Future of Doing More with Less

For years the Nonprofit Sector has lived by the mantra – Doing More with Less. In order to achieve this, we have paid staff below-market wages for their education and experience, short-changed capacity and administration, and gone without professional development. Amazingly, organizations and programs have continued to meet community needs and attract new employees. We have become strangely efficient in delivering services and programs.

Unfortunately, we are now in the midst of the Great Recession. Businesses now must make the kinds of cuts the nonprofit sector was asked to make long ago. They are reducing corporate entertainment, cutting staff and wages and consolidating offices. For the Nonprofit Sector, there are very few cuts left to make, and the needs are growing at a newly alarming pace. The world will not return to the same state as in 2007.  Many things will be different moving forward and the sector will need to adapt, not remain the same.

The old ways of doing things most probably will not work as society and the economy readjust to new realities. So how do we move forward? By letting go.

Think of it as a rock climber. For each move up the rock, one point of connection with the wall must be given up in order to advance. A hand or a foot must release and move. A choice must be made to leave the safety of a secure connection in order to gain a better hold, move upward and reach the ultimate goal. If a climber never wanted to let something go, she would never get to the top.

In order to adapt and embrace the new future, some programs, business models and even some workers, will need to change. We will need to release one foothold in order to gain a new stance.

Making tough choices has not traditionally been a “strength” for a sector based in compassion and service to others. After all, we serve customers with no obvious revenue model. However, in order to survive and eventually thrive, there may be a time for doing less with less. We cannot expect that staff can continue to take on more and more tasks each year. Or that we can continue to achieve efficiencies and reach program excellence while cheating support systems.

There are a couple of styles in decision making. I have a friend who made all his big decisions for an entire year using a Magic 8-Ball. He would ask the ball a question – such as, should I take a job in Paris? – and wait for fate to decide with responses such as “outlook good” or “ask again later.” If you’re trying to decide what to serve for lunch at your next board meeting, the Magic 8-Ball might be the right approach. However, if your organization needs to decide which programs to keep or whether to build a new facility, the Magic 8-Ball is a not a practical solution. 

Another alternative is a clearly defined decision-making model to help make choices that are in the best interests of an entity and that meet the organizational and ethical considerations to move the group forward. Agreeing to leave all options on the table, no matter how unsavory, must be a starting point. There are many models out there, and each organization needs to define and incorporate its own. But delaying decisions, or deciding not to decide, will be more damaging than making a tough choice and moving forward. Even if you discover another alternative as time moves forward, you can always alter course and take what the decision provided in terms of learning.

There are people involved in all of our work and lives are at stake. That makes making solid, good, tough decisions even more imperative.

"People don’t resist change, they resist being changed." – Peter Drucker