What Now: Courageous Thinking for Nonprofit Leaders
Make no mistake about it. This is a year of change and it requires nonprofit leaders to act courageously starting today. Every nonprofit board and executive team must answer for themselves the question, “what now?” This is a different question than “what’s next,” which, in my opinion, is not as certain. Asking, “what now” prepares us for what is next. As I write just a couple of weeks before the presidential inauguration, it is not partisan to say that, across the entire Federal infrastructure, the potential for dramatic shifts in public policy and program priorities is high. Nonprofit leaders that have weathered political change before understand that changes will not be immediate. Even if Congress can jam though Federal cabinet and agency appointments with speed, it is likely not until next the next fiscal year that the biggest changes will start happening. Again, I am not judging the changes as good or bad but simply observing the political realities of the next several years. Whether you work in human services, education, environmental protection, human rights, or healthcare (naming a few), the public policy and programming focus two to three years from now will be different, perhaps dramatically different, then today. So, what now? I would like to offer the following suggestions to answer this question.
1. Increase your information consumption: Nonprofit leaders need to stay current on information and news that matters. Quick check. Do you subscribe to and read at least one reputable print media source that employs journalists? Hint: New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal to name three. I am not talking about reacting by clicking and reading what shows up in your Twitter feed but proactively following trends that matter. Do you fill in the blanks by subscribing to trade journals like Chronicle of Philanthropy, Governing Magazine, and American City and County Magazine? Informed leadership is the only leadership.
2. Clean up your board: When facing an uncertain future, nonprofit leaders need engaged and strategic board members. Now is the time to clean the “dead wood” off your board, improve your board operations, and engage in strategic thinking (further study: Forbes article). The time to invest in building a high-performing board is now, during this period of stability, before the inevitable changes that are coming.
3. Test the durability of your written strategic plan: What? You don’t have a written strategic plan? Have mercy. Stop reading and start here. Okay, for those of you with a strategic plan, budget time for your leadership to test the durability of your plan. Scenario planning is a great tool for your board to use to test your strategy against future possibilities. How well will your strategy hold up under a “business as usual scenario?” What happens to your strategy if there was a disruptive policy change at the Federal level? Testing your strategy helps you think about your nonprofit’s strategic position (see here).
4. Understand public policy: Another nonprofit leadership competency needed now is a deep understanding of how public policy works. For many nonprofit boards of directors, assuming that everyone knows how public policy “sausage” is made will limit your effectiveness. It is important that nonprofit leadership understands how public policy is created and implemented. The days of having the crude understanding that is contained Schoolhouse Rock’s “How a Bill becomes a Law” video are long gone. Nonprofit leaders need to understand (at a detail level) how Federal, state and local laws and policies get developed, how they can track policy making, and more importantly why and how nonprofit leaders need to be involved in public policy efforts (see here).
5. Maintain relationships: “What now” also includes maintaining strong relationships with policy makers, funding agencies, volunteers, and donors. Your nonprofit needs to have regular engagement with those who invest in your work. Investor briefings, open houses, Executive and Board Director communications, visits to policy makers and funders are no longer optional. If you are not building a shared understanding of your strategy, direction and the potential barriers to your efforts today, then when you need to adapt and call in the support of your stakeholders, you will be reactive rather than proactive.
This is an illustrative rather than complete list. The point is this, moving towards an uncertain horizon has begun and nonprofit leaders need to have the courage to aggressively lead their organizations forward. Waiting, even six or eight months will put your organization at a disadvantage. This work is not a new year’s resolution but as a proactive management stance that must be shared by the entire executive and board leadership of your organization. Nonprofit leaders that embrace courageous thinking will be best positioned to shape and adapt to the waves of change that are coming. Conversely, those that think that tomorrow will be “business as usual,” may find themselves on shifting sand or being pulled along by the undercurrent of change.
As always, your thoughts are welcome.
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