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What Should the Board Do?

A while ago a nonprofit was founded on a large piece of ground. The founders hoped the nonprofit would grow and need the land. As the years passed, the nonprofit grew and shrank. Today it is serving very few people and struggling to find a path forward. It has never needed more than the modest corner of the ground that it originally occupied. In an attempt to return the nonprofit to vitality, it is considering using the ground for something that is tangentially related to its mission. Whether the concept is something the community sincerely wants is unknown. The way the plans current stand the nonprofit would completely fund the project. There is very little opportunity to recover any of the costs after completion so the nonprofit must be prepared to pay for ongoing maintenance and operational expenses. It could become a financial burden for this organization that is under stress and feels like it is in crisis. Once completed, there is expected to be minimal interaction between the nonprofit and the community but it will raise the awareness of the users to the presence of the nonprofit.

The proposal, roughly as you have read it, is before the board for consideration. Based upon what you know, would you advise the nonprofit to proceed?

It is easy to understand how the nonprofit arrived at this point. They are struggling. Their current mission or the expression of their mission (mission statement or services offered) has declining perceived relevance to the community. The land is an untapped resource. A cursory review suggests there are limited expenses associated with launching the idea. A few people are enthusiastic about it. Since this is the only idea on the table and none of the leaders are strenuously objecting, it seems like it is better to do something than nothing.

This is the time to pause and take an objective look at the situation. Some questions that might help them make a good decision are:

Is this something the community wants or is it something the nonprofit wants the community to have? Is the community willing to help fund it and pay for its ongoing maintenance?

If it is something the community wants, how can the nonprofit make it mission centric?

Is there something the community wants more that better fits with the nonprofit’s mission, makes better use of the nonprofit’s strengths, and will create a collaborative partnership between the nonprofit and the community?

Will this project have a big enough impact on the community to justify committing scarce resources to it? By committing scarce resources will the nonprofit gain sufficiently to mitigate some of its financial stress?

How will completing the project increase the nonprofit’s sustainability?

Will the project provide the nonprofit with new strengths? How can the project become an investment in the nonprofit’s future?

In the future, if the nonprofit needs the land for its mission, how will it reclaim the land without alienating the community? (What is the exit strategy?)

Would it be best to change the nonprofit’s current programing to meet an unmet or undermet community need, to transform the land to meet a community need, or both?

Everyone associated with the nonprofit wants it to survive and thrive so there is an urge to do something in the hopes it is the right something. The stakeholders’ passion and the limited time are the nonprofit’s greatest strengths and greatest threat. The urgency and passion can stampede it into making a decision that wastes the last of its resources. Doing nothing is an equal threat because the nonprofit has limited time. Therefore, it needs to take a strategic pause, objectively find the right path forward, and harness the passion of its current stakeholders to ensure the path leads to success.

In this case, the strategic pause should only last a few weeks. It should engage the community in a discussion of the needs the community is willing to invest in. Once the nonprofit knows what the community is willing to support that is mission centric, it needs to build a plan, gather community support, and execute the plan.

The nonprofit only has time to make one decision. It must be willing to commit all of its time and resources into making that decision a huge success.

Next Step:

Pause before responding to a crisis

Consult with your community and stakeholders

Create a plan that is mission centric, has community support, and increases your stakeholders’ passion

Go all in!

Every plan is flawed. Therefore, every project stumbles several times during its execution. Early in the execution of a crisis-recovery plan, any setback will cause some stakeholders to declare that the nonprofit is on the wrong path. This is where leadership resolve is critical. Though adjusting the plan is necessary, the commitment to the plan must be unwavering. Stopping, creating a new plan, and going forward with the new plan almost never works because the resources lost on the first plan almost ensure that the new plan will have insufficient resources to be successful – even if it is the plan that should have been adopted in the beginning. That is why an objective assessment of the right path forward is the most critical part of the recovery process.

Take It Further:

Remember, the best crisis avoidance strategy is to ensure your nonprofit has a high level of sustainability, good financial healthy, highly effective programing that is mission centric, growing community support, growing number of clients served, and increasing donor generosity, loyalty, and engagement.

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