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Turning the Corner

When a nonprofit is struggling, visualizing the path forward is the first step toward sustainability. In many cases, it is the hardest step.

An objective perspective is needed to see the path forward. Small nonprofits usually have small groups of passionate stakeholders who think about the nonprofit as if it was their own. Their sense of ownership limits their ability to be objective. They remember when the nonprofit was strong, relevant, and financially healthy with a high level of sustainability. They are often a group of leaders (formal and informal) who think there is nothing wrong and everything would be great again if only there was more money.

Newer stakeholders with equal passion maybe able to objectively understand the problem. For them the obvious solution is to displace the old obstructive guard. However, it is difficult to do and when it is successful it usually result in the old guard disengaging completely. The end result is less support at a time when all support is critical to survival.

Without agreement on how to step forward or what the solution might be, there is a power struggle. The paralysis further lowers sustainability and makes the turnaround more difficult. The discord also adds to the struggles.

The nonprofit was successful because it met an important need in the community. Either the need has been eliminated or someone else is doing a better job of meeting the need. Now is the time to find an unmet or undermet need and adopt that need just like the founders did many years ago. Create a new vision for the nonprofit, its clients, and its community.

Sometimes it is as simple as keeping the mission statement unchanged but redirecting it toward a different demographic. Other times it is better to think like the founders and create a new mission.

When the founders started out they were probably a group of friends with a desire to do something important for the community. However, your nonprofit is a much larger than a few friends sitting at a kitchen table.

There must be a more formal process today because you have a formal structure supported by a significant number of stakeholders. You want your revisioning to be embraced by all of the current stakeholders and the results to be attractive to new stakeholders.

In most cases, the decline has resulted in the board looking inward. They first looked for a cause and found several things they could change. Then they looked at the nonprofit’s needs. While introspection is good, it can be taken too far. Therefore, the first step is to help the board look outward for the solution.

The founders’ original focus was outward. They wanted to do something for their community. The question Mission Enablers recommends that you ask your leadership is “Who should we serve?” but in this situation we recommend that it be rephrased to “Who does the community want us to serve?” The same outward focus should be used for four more questions, you will find them in the revisioning article.

Just rephrasing the questions is insufficient. The leaders have a habit of looking internally and thinking about what they want for their nonprofit (even though it is community’s nonprofit). It is important to focus their thinking outward before answering the question. Therefore, we recommend that you pose the question then ask them to take a minute (formally timed) to think about how the community would like them to answer the question. Now they are better prepared to respond in a way that will attract external support and serve a community need. If you have multiple ideas to choose from, we recommend that before you vote on an idea, you ask everyone to take a minute (formally timed) and consider how the community would want them to vote. If during the discussion or the voting you realize that someone has returned to internal thinking, remind them that the nonprofit is the community’s nonprofit and you are the stewards.

Next Step:

Remind everyone that as community stewards they are responsible for representing the interests of your community

Remind everyone that all decisions must ensure that the current stakeholders are kept and new stakeholders are attracted

Include a cross section of community representatives as well as stakeholders in the revisioning process

Money is probably a major concern at the moment. Therefore, it is going to require a leap of faith for everyone to envision something new when there are insufficient funds to meet the current needs. Remind everyone that success depends on a vision that draws new supporters to the mission. The new supporters are the solution for the current needs and the future needs.

Also remind the group that the founders had limited funds when they started (probably more limited that the current situation). They made it because the community wanted what they were offering. They community will respond again. The community’s response will be proportional to the value it sees in the new vision.

Keep the process optimistic, hopeful, and positive

Take It Further:

Use an outsider with experience to lead your revisioning process (an outsider will be seen as objective which will reduce the tension between those who want to preserve the status quo and those who want something that is radically different)

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