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A to Z Survival Guide for Uncertain Times

October 15, 2008

(Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In September, he paid tribute to the late Paul Newman.)

AbcsEach time the American economy has suffered a downturn or government has cut back on funding for social programs, the media has focused on how those of us on "Nonprofit Street" are being affected. Those of us running nonprofit organizations don't need newspapers to tell us how things are going or how our constituents are faring. Instead, we want to know what our colleagues are doing to address the financial challenges we each face.

The "A to Z Nonprofit Survival Guide for Uncertain Times" is compiled from my past writings and strategy recommendations I learned from grantees, clients, and fellow consultants. To all of you, I am grateful for your generosity and wisdom.


Accentuate the positive
There's enough doom and gloom in the media and on Wall Street. The public doesn't want to hear how poorly nonprofits are doing; they want to know that nonprofit organizations will continue to be there for them.

Be bold
The pressure to scale back programs and to promise less is real. But it's important, when possible, to find new ways to provide value to clients, funders, and supporters.

In normal times, many nonprofit leaders view collaboration as the most unnatural of acts. These are not normal times. There is much to be gained, including cost savings and enhanced impact, by working more closely with others.

Deepen relationships (with elected officials, in particular)
Unfortunately, local, state, and federal governments will be forced to make cuts in their budgets as tax revenues decline. Be sure to make the case with your elected officials and their key staff for continued government funding of your organization.

Look for opportunities to experiment and/or pilot small-scale initiatives. Such opportunities are likely to be a less expensive investment in change than grand, large-scale progams or initiatives.

Fundraise selectively
Good advice anytime, but especially in the current economic climate. Focus on strong, solid prospects rather than second-tier long shots. With corporate donors, be prepared to discuss non-cash ways the company can support your operations, including loaned executives, volunteer programs, the short-term loan of facilities, and other in-kind contributions.

Get rid of dead (board) wood
Tough times demand that all stakeholders roll up their sleeves and give generously of their "time, talent, and treasure." Board members who are unable and/or unwilling to pull their weight and contribute what they can to strengthen the organizations must (gently) be shown the door.

Help other organizations less well positioned than your own
It doesn't have to be with money; technical assistance, fundraising advice, even something as simple as words of encouragement can go a long way in a tough economic environment. At the end of the day, we're all in this together.

Invest in the future
Though you're likely to find that cost-cutting measures are unavoidable, it's equally important that you identify ways to create or expand your reserve funds. No one can predict the future, so the best advice is probably the old Scouts motto: "Be prepared."

Join your local or state association of nonprofits
Networking is not only helpful in times like these, it's essential. Local nonprofit associations provide a great meeting ground to exchange information and lessons learned with peers and colleagues in other organizations.

Keep informed of developments in your field
That means staying on top of your issues and looking for even better ways to do what you do. This is not the time to cut back on professional journals and magazine subscriptions.

Look to the future, not the past
Another way of saying, "Don't rest on your laurels." And if your organization is struggling, take comfort from the fact that, with creativity, hard work, and an optimistic outlook, things are likely to get better.

Mind the sweet spot
Don't just chase dollars. Identify your organization's "sweet spot" -- the intersection of its vision, mission, assets, and other strengths with the giving "impulses" of your supporters and stakeholders -- and make sure everything you do connects to it.

Never reinvent the wheel
No explanation necessary.

Open yourself and your organization to new ideas
If something has stopped working for you, it's probably time to change it. Open your mind to new ideas and new ways of doing things, and seek out the opinions of experts in your field.

Plan for uncertainty
To be a good steward of the resources that have been entrusted to you, you simply must forecast several different financial scenarios for your upcoming fiscal year. Be conservative in your revenue projections.

Quickly communicate bad news to your key supporters
Make sure your key internal and external stakeholders feel they are being kept apprised of major changes and developments affecting your organization. And whatever you do, do not let them learn bad news about your organization from the media.

Respect your stakeholders
You can expect to get a lot of tough questions from concerned stakeholders. The fact they are concerned is a positive for your organization. Don't squander it by giving false or misleading answers.

Cost-saving measures such as sharing office space or pooling back-office functions must be considered in tough economic times. Many funders will be cutting back on administrative costs and will appreciate grantees' efforts to do the same.

Tell your story
Across the country, in practically every community, low-income families and individuals are the ones who will be most affected by the economic downturn. They are likely to turn, in growing numbers, to local nonprofit organizations for food assistance, child care, credit counseling, job retraining, legal assistance, and other services. Nonprofit leaders would be well-advised to collect the stories of the individuals and families they serve and share them with donors, supporters, and local media.

Upgrade your staff perks
Many nonprofits will be pressured to reduce headcount and/or to contract out some of their services. Such measures can hurt morale and reduce organizational effectiveness. It's important, therefore, for nonprofit leaders to find both material and non-material ways to express their appreciation for and solidarity with staff. Listen to their ideas and validate their concerns. They'll appreciate it and your organization will benefit.

Vision, vision, vision
In tough times, people tend to rally around organizations and leaders that project an air of confidence and optimisim. Franlkin D. Roosevelt warned about fearing "fear itself" in the depths of the Great Depression, and in the 1960s Lyndon Johnson rallied a shocked and racially polarized country around the notion of a "Great Society." For both men, language was a critical tool in helping to paint and convey a picture of better times to come. Nonprofits would be well-served to take a page out of their respective books.

Wear your values on your sleeve
In our sector, the most important assets are our values and the public's trust. Whether we express our values through our Web sites, marketing materials, or on a T-shirt, we should display and wear them proudly. And in no circumstance should we compromise our ethics or the integrity of our organizations or the sector.

Remember: Most of us still have a lot to be grateful for.

Yield no ground as an authority in your field
In order to assert that authority, however, you have to stay informed (see K) and must communicate clearly.

Zero in on your core competencies
Identify what your organization does best and strive to be a leader and innovator in that area or space.


Update: Thursday, October 30: With help from many of you, I've filled in the missing letters. Special thanks to Cindy Bailie, Kaye Pyle, and Mitch Nauffts. I'd love to hear any additional suggestions you have. In the months to come, many of us will need -- and we can all benefit -- from our collective experience. Don't be shy -- use the comments below....

-- Michael Seltzer

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Posted by Kathryn Pyle  |   October 16, 2008 at 01:00 PM

Great suggestions, Michael. Here are mine for those other letters...

Keep innovating. This doesn´t mean going for the flavor of the week, whether the one in the media or the one on the funders' websites. It means staying on top of your issues and looking for the best way to do what you do.

Help develop upcoming leaders and new organizations. They´re tomorrow's resource and your future network.

Opportunity, the open flower that oxigenates a crisis, is the program yin of the economic yang.

X-pect the best work from your staff. Listen to their ideas, respect their interests. They'll appreciate it and your organization will benefit.

Zest, as an ingredient in food, gives a little something extra that makes a big difference...

Posted by mitchn  |   October 20, 2008 at 11:47 AM

Hi, Kaye. Thanks for the post -- and your own great suggestions. I'd like to take this opportunity to add a few of my own:

H -- Help (as in reach out to) organizations less well positioned than your own. It doesn't have to be with money; technical assistance, fundraising advice, even something as simple as words of encouragement go a long way in a tough economic environment. At the end of the day, we're all in this together.

K -- Keep your chin up. Yes, things are tough, and likely to get tougher. But in times like these, people look for inspiration and leadership, not "Woe is me."

O -- Open yourself and your organization to new ideas. If something has stopped working for you, it's probably time to change it.

X -- Xhale. Most of us have a lot to be grateful for.

Z -- Zoom in on your best and most loyal donors and make sure they are absolutely engaged with your organization. In tough economic times, the Pareto principle ("80-20" rule) applies more than ever.

What does everyone else think? Don't be shy!

Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   October 20, 2008 at 05:02 PM

Thank you, Kaye and Mitch for your helpful suggestions--In the spirit, I would like to add to the mix specific ideas that are coming in over the transom from nonprofit organizations.

Under a new 'P'--let's make this 'Providing Greater Value to Your Core Supporters'.

Last week, I received a mailing from Lambda Legal, the nation's pre-eminent LGBT civil rights organization. Enclosed was its attractive quarterly glossy members' magazine, updating me on the organization's work and accomplishments. For the first time, the mailing also included enclosures from two of their corporate supporters. There was a discount coupon worth $100 on my next flight on American Airlines, and a brochure on a new socially responsible phone mobile company--CREDO.

In addition, the back of the personalized cover letter (with the expected contributions form) showed the logos of Lambda's 42 corporate sponsors.


I got a discount coupon on an airline I fly regularly and also, a chance to see which companies and others are supporting Lambda, which might influence my consumer choices. And the companies got desired exposure to a loyal market segment through affiliation with their charity. A win-win for two of the organization's most important sources of revenues, and a smart fund raising idea for any nonprofit.

Michael Seltzer

Posted by Ann Feeney  |   October 21, 2008 at 09:16 AM

Great list! I'm printing it out to keep on my desk.

For K, H, O, and X:

K: Keep up the good work and stop doing the work that doesn't accomplish its goals. Now is a time to evaluate everything mercilessly, including pet projects. A crisis provides a graceful out for putting those on the shelf for a while.
H: Hope. It's easy to give in to making our visions smaller, to seeing the glass as half-empty and losing more water every minute.
O: Open. Open your mind to new ideas and new ways of doing things. Open your doors to those who need you.
X: Experiment. Find opportunities to experiment and to use small scale pilots. It's a much lower investment in change than big scale plans.

Posted by Cindy Bailie  |   October 23, 2008 at 01:02 PM

Here are a few thoughts for 2 of those other letters:

K - Knock one out of the park. Put your heavy hitters in the line up and consider forgetting the rest for now. In other words, focus your fundraising right now on the things that your organization excels at and for which you have a track record to prove it. Times like these leave us feeling a bit fragile. Backing a winner, a sure thing, provides donors with an opportunity for a big uplift.

X - X Marks the Spot. Don't chase the dollars. Take a moment to discover your organization's sweet spot, the place where your organization's characteristics--its mission, assets, and other strengths--intersect with the "giving impulses" of your community of individuals, foundations, and any other types of supporters. Work it!

Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   October 25, 2008 at 05:40 PM

Dear Ann and Cindy:

Thank you for your excellent suggestions. I agree wholeheartedly with both the ideas and the spirit! We have to continue to aspire to eXcellence in what we do. I would not go as far as to say that there is a silver lining, for I don't see one. However, there are opportunities. For example, due to the downturn in the construction industry, nonprofits that are embarking on capital projects will be able to elicit more attractive bids for building projects than they would have received a year ago.

Keep the ideas coming!

Michael Seltzer

Posted by Paul A. Dillon  |   November 12, 2008 at 09:58 PM

Dear Michael:

I noted with interest in your excellent A to Z Grantmaker's Guide, where you mentioned the desirability of grant making organizations offering peer learning opportunities for their grantees.

In that regard, I want to inform you that I have created and organized peer learning roundtables, in cooperation with the Edward Lowe Foundation (http://www.edwardlowe.org), and with the interest of the MacArthur Foundation (http://www.macfound.org), for the leaders in the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Chicago’s New Communities Program (http://www.lisc-chicago.org). These roundtables have been a great success. This program is unique for non-profits and community leaders. It utilizes the Edward Lowe Foundation’s proprietary PeerSpectives ™ peer learning methodology, which promotes true experiential learning among the roundtable participants, leading to concrete, real solutions that the participants can actually implement. There is no other peer learning process like this in the United States. An example of how a PeerSpectives ™ roundtable operates can be found by going to the Edward Lowe Foundation’s web site, and clicking on the roundtable video link. Additionally, I am attaching to this email a brief, two-page rationale for, and description of, the peer-to-peer learning roundtable process for non-profit and community leaders.
These roundtables have undergone a rigorous evaluation process. Participants in these roundtables have indicated that, as a direct result of this innovative peer learning experience, they took actions that benefited them both as leaders in their organizations and in their personal lives. One participant wrote, "This group has been extremely helpful in my professional and personal life. (The facilitator) is a phenomenal leader, and provides us with insight and direction." Additional comments from the roundtable participants, include:

"It is valuable to hear that our struggles are similar. "

"I recognize the value of this process. Because of my work in the past, I always had the chance for peer sharing. That’s what got me through. There is an essence of you that can possibly shrink. You have to be really protective of your spirit in this work."

"It’s good to be able to talk to people who aren’t in your organization. You don’t want to let that vulnerability show up."

"I’m lucky to have the opportunity to come to things like this. I also find it interesting how the same feelings come from people in different organizations."

These comments demonstrate the power and effectiveness of this highly creative and unique learning methodology for non-profit and community leaders.

Additionally, Joel Bookman, who heads LISC's New Communities Program, has indicated that he would gladly serve as a reference for how the peer learning roundtable process has worked with the LISC New Communities Program leaders. His complete contact information is as follows:

Mr. Joel D. Bookman

Director, New Communities Program

LISC Chicago

One N. LaSalle St., 12th Floor

Chicago, IL 60602



The PeerSpectives ™ peer learning roundtables are completely portable, and can be held anywhere where there is a facility large enough to accommodate the group. Typically, the facility is a conference room capable of holding 10 people, or so. The size of the roundtable groups typically range from 4-6 participants as a minimum to 12-14 participants as a maximum, plus the professional facilitator, with the average size being 10 participants or so. The only equipment required is an easel and note pad, plus markers, and any refreshments that the host organization cares to provide. The roundtables average 3-4 hours in length, and are held monthly, 10 months of the year, (with no roundtables being held during August and December). The professional facilitators are thoroughly trained by the Edward Lowe Foundation in the PeerSpectives ™ peer learning methodology, and must pass a test administered by the Foundation, at the completion of their training. (I have a group of facilitators already trained in Chicago). The roundtables (and the facilitator) undergo a rigorous evaluation after the 4th or 5th month of operation, and are evaluated for their effectiveness and worth, both to the participants and the organization(s) that sponsor them, periodically thereafter.

Michael, I am firmly convinced that this highly creative peer-to-peer learning roundtable program would be as valuable to many non-profit organizations, as it has been to the community leaders in the LISC program. I look forward to hearing from you about grant making organizations, of which you might be aware, that might be interested in offering PeerSpectives ™ peer learning roundtables for their grantees.

Thank you for your interest in this innovative learning idea for non-profit executives and community leaders.

Very truly yours,

Paul D.

Paul A. Dillon, CMC
Dillon Consulting Services LLC
221 N. LaSalle St., Suite 820
Chicago, IL 60601-1302
Cell: 708-224-1278
Fax: 312-424-4262
Project Management - Business Development

Posted by Ben Tanner  |   May 12, 2009 at 07:00 PM

This list needs to be published everywhere. Can I use this content and link to it on my our blog?

My name is Ben from thereadystore.com. We love to post tips like this on our blog.

With your permission, I'll link to your site from ours.



Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   May 26, 2009 at 08:09 AM

Go for it!

Posted by A Appiah  |   July 26, 2009 at 11:17 AM

Great Tips. F - FUN!

Prospects are dreary enough, make the workplace a fun environment to keep staff spirit up. Put as much fun into implementing projects and realizing organizational goals.

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Quote of the Week

  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."

    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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