Step Away

When there is a big problem, it can become all consuming. It is hard to think about anything else until there is a plan to deal with the problem. However, rushing to solve the problem is usually counterproductive.

There will be a future whether the problem is solved today, a few days from now, or never. Treating any problem as urgent places an emphasis on short-term thinking. However, the bigger the problem, the more important it is to create a durable solution. Constructing a durable solution is usually a time-consuming process which may require creativity and research.

Boards should encourage the creation of a durable long-term solution to any problem. They meet periodically for a short periods of time and have full agendas. Therefore, taking a slow and thoughtful approach is their best response. Because of their limited time they can only do things once. A hurried approach is likely to result in revisiting the problem.

If your board is tempted to treat the problem as urgent, you may wish to remind it that it is starting down the micromanagement path. It is also a good time to remind the board of the one or two things that are truly urgent. Other things, including the current hot item, just require a prompt response (“We know there is a problem and it will be addressed as soon as we have more information.”) but the final resolution (plan, resources, implementation, and testing) will take time. It is easy to agree with the preceding now but when you are facing the problem, it is hard to remember to step away and look at the big picture.

When you do step away, the first question to ask is “What do we want our nonprofit to look like when the crisis has passed?” It is natural to want everything to be back to normal but while one is dealing with a crisis the definition of normal changes. It is better to think in terms of X% better than before the crisis. It takes careful thinking and a view of the future to properly define better. For example, a school faced with a security threat might react by putting up an eight-foot cement wall around the school. That might raise the security level of the school but lower the effectiveness of the mission. If the students are depressed by being in a fortress, their academic performance could suffer and enrollment might drop. Therefore, ‘better’ must be defined by the positive impact the changes have on the mission’s effectiveness, the clients’ success, and the value created for the surrounding community.

Experts can tell you how to address the risk that created the crisis but they are unlikely to be helpful defining ‘better’. Convene several small groups consisting of a cross section of stakeholder and ask them to define better.

Using your stakeholders recommendations and the experts’ advice, you can create a plan that will impress and delight everyone. It will be expensive but because it is what your stakeholders want, there will be support. It will take much longer than the usual quick fix but it will be so much more beneficial to all of your stakeholder groups that very few will care.

Next Step:

Take time to pause and respond to every problem (big or small)

Treat every problem as an opportunity to grow, strengthen, and energize your nonprofit

Ensure your solution is mission centric, driven by client success, and value rich for your community

Engage your stakeholder is every step from ideation through implementation

Your stakeholders want to feel like they are important to your nonprofit. They want to contribute in more ways than just their designated role (donor, volunteer, referral source, advocate, client, etc.). Inviting them into the problem solving process is a reward for them. It raises their engagement and sense of ownership. Their participation early helps to ensure their support throughout. Their continued support will increase your nonprofit’s sustainability and the community’s perception of your mission’s relevance. Most nonprofits see a dip in sustainability when a problem arises.

A crisis focuses attention on your nonprofit. Exiting the crisis stronger will surprise and delight your stakeholders and community.

Take It Further:

Talk about the growth, change, and increase in value to others rather than the cause or your response to the cause (people want to know that you have a plan for the future and that your nonprofit will have a future)

Draw those with the greatest reaction to the problem into the process first (it is their passion and concern for your mission and clients that is energizing them, use it to your advantage)

Add creating a competitive advantage to the list of other benefits (increased mission effectiveness, improved client success, etc.) you want your nonprofit to receive from every problem

Remember that if you only see two choices, you need to think more creatively because there are many paths to the future


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