Every week, readers send me stressful, anxiety-ridden emails about their nonprofit crisis.
“I can’t believe what the press is writing about us. I was pretty sure it was the end of our organization.”
“3 angry calls from unpaid vendors so far this week. I have no idea what to even tell them.”
“It took months to hire our E.D. In the meantime, fundraising stopped dead.”
“I’ve barely slept for weeks. I come to work every day wondering if I’ll even get paid.”
Perhaps you’re currently going through a crisis yourself. Know you’re not alone. Not even close. If you’ve been a staff or board member of a nonprofit for more than about 20 minutes, you have a war story.
Nonprofit war stories are a dime a dozen because nonprofits are hard wired to be messy. And things can get messy fast.
However, used strategically, war stories have an important role to play for the good.
Let me illustrate with something that once happened to me.
MY FIRST NONPROFIT CRISIS
In 1997, I made the leap from the for-profit sector to the nonprofit sector and I was extended an offer for a great new low paying job as the Executive Director of GLAAD. I stopped breathing. I expected “low paying” but not A THIRD of what I was making. I negotiated. Ever so proud of myself, I secured a salary that I could say out loud without weeping.
But after my first meeting with our Director of Finance, I could only laugh (before I wept silently). There was no money. Whatever I may have negotiated for my salary, the organization couldn’t afford to pay me more than a one-time lump sum of $360.00. Because that’s all there was in the bank. Oh, and there were 18 other staff members that needed to be paid. And outstanding debt of $250,000.
I left eight years later with a cash reserve of $1.5 million and a staff of 42. We didn’t just survive; we thrived.
3 REASONS WE LOVE TO TELL WAR STORIES
- People Have EgosLook at mine. Why do I love to tell that story? Makes me look pretty good, right? So there’s a dose of ego for sure.
- Who Doesn’t Love a Good Survival Story?This is the communal part. Don’t you hear people tell war stories with an oddly gleeful and sort of wistful tone? Crises bring people together; they require a special dose of adrenalin. There is a rush that comes with trying to fix a big fat mess in a hurry. It’s not typically “I did it!” — a war story usually starts with “WE did it!”
- Crises Amplify the Power of Your Mission
Surviving a crisis requires a full court press on the part of board and staff. There must be a deep-seated passion about the particular work of your organization. If not, the crisis deepens and resignations follow.
A CRISIS PROPELS YOUR ORGANIZATION FORWARD WHEN…
- When the Experience Leads to Bold ThinkingWith your nose out of the aging Accounts Payable spreadsheet, a nonprofit leader can actually look ahead. You survived, you are steady, and now you can grow, invest, and think bigger.
- When We Learn Important LessonsHandled well or poorly, a crisis teaches you valuable lessons that strengthen your infrastructure, your board’s commitment, your fundraising efforts, the organizational structure, and your approach to press relations. Please, I beg you. Debrief after the crisis is over and commit to a session outlining the ‘positives’ of the crisis. These positives are the gems of a crisis.
- When the Experience Brings Staff and Board Together
Your board and staff have tackled something big. It’s been hard. You have had to make tough choices. But you did it together. So here’s the opportunity a great nonprofit seizes. Continue that momentum. Your board may have been engaged like never before. A lunch with the board chair and the Executive Director (wine could be involved) to debrief and talk about lessons learned. Do not leave before you make a shared commitment to a few specific things the two of you can do to keep the board engaged.
WHEN WAR STORIES WEAKEN YOUR NONPROFIT
- “Oh, you weren’t here then, were you? It was awful!”Those who survived the crisis can become an elite club. Not good for a nonprofit all working toward the same goal. By creating elitism, you diminish the voices of those who followed. So when someone raises a legitimate concern, the answer can often be, “Well if you think that is bad, you should have been there when….”It’s not a competition folks. That concern raised by the board or staff member may have real legitimacy and you’ve just missed it.
- A Crisis Can Cause A Risk Averse CultureI once said to a client, “Wasn’t it your PARENTS who went through the Depression? You manage this organization like it is resting on a big mattress and you are squirreling your assets away under the box spring.”If a war story becomes too much a part of your nonprofit’s culture, you won’t look to invest. You will avoid actions you feel are bold.Maybe that’s OK by you – to be a solid, safe, good organization. It better be. Because you’ll never be great.
- The Story Backfires If Not Told WellFocus on the disaster and not the triumph – how hard it was for everyone — and you toss an opportunity right out the window. Focus on how the organization came together and you’re telling a story of hard time and how you managed through it.Maybe that’s OK by you – to tell a story that shows that you handled the crisis well. It better be. Because your team won’t be seen as exceptional.
ARE YOU IN A NONPROFIT CRISIS NOW?
If you are, let me say this first and sincerely. I’m sorry. I know it’s really hard. I hope this post gives you a tiny bit of hope and inspiration.
Second, you can learn from your colleagues, including the members of my tribe of weekly readers.
(Are you not yet a weekly reader? If not, you can subscribe here – http://joangarry.com/subscribe)
And so to my weekly readers, would you take a minute and toss a dose of hope out there for your nonprofit colleagues who may be trying to dig out of some kind of ditch? A lesson? A piece of advice?
Share a brief war story and the positives that came from it. Probably a good exercise for you too.