Wednesday, January 14, 2009

More With Less

My friend, the CEO of a national nonprofit, was quite stressed. She was facing the prospect of layoffs and cutbacks given reduced membership renewals and a less than stellar annual conference. Dealing with the numbers wasn't really the stresser, it was managing a board that had increased expectations despite the reality of the organization's reduced capacity, that had my friend at her wit's end.

And there was the rub. How do you tell a group of well-meaning people that they might be out of their minds? Or do you tell them?

Now is the time for frank conversation. According to experts the economy isn't poised for a turn-around any time soon. And while we've heard plenty about the retail and housing sectors, the damage being suffered by nonprofits barely rates a peep on the nightly news.

Folks I know say their organization's revenues are down by 30% to 40%. And many nonprofits that rely heavily on conference income report staggering losses in registrations, resulting in the inability to meet room night and meal requirements and incurring the attendant hotel fines. Memberships are slow in coming, sponsorships and trade shows are weak. Yet, especially given the economy, the need for nonprofit services are greater not less.

I think the conversation starts with the Treasurer of the organization. A close relationship with your Treasurer is always a good idea, in lean times or in flush. Often times board members skim through the financial report and if there's money in the bank they are satisfied to move on to other more exciting topics, like legislative policy or who the keynote will be at the Miami gathering. It is the Treasurer who has a vested interest not only in how the organization is faring today but what the numbers will look like six months from now. No one wants to be the "Treasurer" who ran the organization into bankruptcy.

Express your concerns to the Treasurer. Provide projections for the next three, six and twelve months. Clearly lay out the financial obligations of the organization; the lease, the payroll, the equipment rental. Can you sustain the level of service you currently provide? And if not, what has to go? Is it possible to re-tool your services by cutting some and increasing others? Once the Treasurer has a crystal clear understanding of the financial challenges, ask him/her to communicate those challenges to the rest of the board.

And, let it be the Treasurer that tells the board "no." Nonprofit executives who constantly say "no" to the board usually don't last long. But a Treasurer saying "no" carries greater weight and gives the exec cover.

An added bonus is that you as the executive won't have to feel alone, you now have a partner to share the burden. You may not be able to do more with less but you certainly can move the organization toward sustainability in these rough times.

Bunnie can be reached at

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