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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Keep Driving Toward the Light
Rather than make resolutions, be resolute this year

by Kay Sprinkel Grace

Most of us have had our patience, fortitude, and confidence tested in the past few years. We’ve watched a volatile economy erode the earnings and vision of corporations and foundations, fear of terrorism chip away at America’s usual optimism, and, as a consequence, seen support for nonprofit organizations flatten or shrink.

We’ve seen some of our funding sources crumble, learned to work with a new generation of funders who have sharp expectations for our performance, and worked diligently to position our case for support in ways that will assure both continuing and new funders that, even in times of great change, we are an excellent investment.

But now we have a new year. And, instead of making New Year’s resolutions (which you’ll break or forget by February), the key to success is to be resolute. This needs to be a turnaround year for our world, and we – whether involved in the arts, children’s health, environmental programs, social services to seniors, or any of the myriad of services we provide daily in our communities – can be part of the turnaround.

To ensure success in this new year, here are 10 Things to be resolute about.

of related interest

OF RELATED INTEREST: In The Ultimate Board Member’s Book, Kay Sprinkel Grace explores the role and responsibilities of board members, including the time commitment, the role of staff, fundraising responsibilities, conflicts of interest, group decision-making, board self-evaluation, and more.

Think abundance, not scarcity.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “poor me” when you look at your budget or balance sheet and see the erosion of income or assets. The problem with most of us is that we spend more time looking in mirrors than we do looking through windows. Think about what you’ve accomplished over the years in your community. Think about the donors who have helped you. Let them know that the residual impact of their investment is strong, and that you’re still doing worthy things in spite of the trimming you’ve had to do. When we lead from abundance, we can create more abundance. When we lead from scarcity, we remind others of their own scarcity. Convey impact, not need. Putting away the tin cup was something we (hopefully) did years ago. The tendency to whip out the cup in times like this is strong. Keep it hidden. Abundance will follow.

Subvert mediocrity.
Those who have led great missions – from Clara Barton to Susan B. Anthony to Franklin Roosevelt to those in your community – were intolerant of mediocrity. While their style for dealing with it may have varied, the end result was the same: they so inspired people with their vision and focus, that any latent mediocrity was quelled. Whether looking at board or staff goals, this is a time for zero tolerance of mediocrity. This is a time for thinking without boundaries and for looking at new ways to get the job done – through collaborations, partnerships, shifts in staffing, renewal of the board, or any other means that will achieve our goal. Mediocrity weighs an organization down and hampers our ability to serve those who need to be served. Focus on mission – the need you are meeting – and on leadership that encourages excellence.

Position yourself for charitable investment, but don’t call yourself a charity.
What’s the difference? Plenty. In most people’s minds, a charity is an organization that is needy. A charitable investment, on the other hand, is a social investment guided by values and a belief in the organization’s ability to act on those values in a way that will satisfy the intent of the donor. Although The New York Times and even publications in our field persist in calling us charities, investors honestly don’t think of us that way. They think of us as nonprofits. They see us as an effective third sector, with government and corporations, in addressing the needs of a complex society. So, check your materials – including your mailings and brochures and website – and make sure you’re positioning yourself as a charitable investment, not as a charity. It will be a significant factor in your success.

Build partnerships, not silos.
The work we do is unceasing, the needs we’re meeting keep growing. Other organizations in our communities may have same or similar missions. It only makes sense to build partnerships with them. Let donors know you’re working together. Ease your contributors’ minds about redundancy and overlap, so they know their investment in the issues important to them is being used in the most judicious way for the highest possible impact. If you fear another organization eroding your market share, then you’re thinking more about your organization than your mission. This is not a time for silo construction – it’s a time for realizing that diminished resources can make a bigger difference when people work together to economize on service delivery and extend their reach to a larger client base. Whatever it takes to be resolute on this issue, do it. Your organization will enjoy new kinds of success.

Keep your investors informed.
Good news, bad news – it makes no difference. Investors want to know what is happening. It is startling how many organizations still resist regular communication with their investors. Whether you use email, or quick notes, or the telephone, or your newsletter, let your donors know when something of importance happens in your organization, whether it’s good news (a scholarship made possible by the donor has been awarded) or bad news (a much-sought grant was denied and your programming or services will be affected). Informed investors will keep investing.

Do something new.
Sometimes the best way to energize people and inspire them to reinvest or get involved again is to shy away from business as usual. For example, try a new special event that will bring in a different group of volunteers and new constituencies. Involve your board in helping to design a new program or exhibition or installation, letting them work with the professionals to see how it’s done. Redesign your materials so that color, type, logo and other aspects are more upbeat and attractive. Instead of the usual board retreat, do something that’s both mental and physical – a hike, ropes course, building project, or community service project. As you know, Habitat for Humanity gets great board coalescence through building a house. Look for something that would instill the same camaraderie in your board.

Combat fear.
Fear has swept our world. The media stokes our anxiety daily, and the sizeable government investment in combating terrorism is dual edged: it increases our fear while increasing our safety. What can you do as an organization to help people suppress fear in favor of optimism? Think and talk about success: how you have changed lives, made a difference, or forged new alliances to successfully meet needs. Master the stories of your success, making them personal and heartwarming. Remind people of the importance of a healthy local community even in a time when we’re thinking about a grave global issue. Fear makes our hearts cold; stories of lives touched in positive ways make our hearts warm.

Keep your confidence up.
Easy to say, but not easy to do. Still, we have much to be confident about. Our sector does so much for so many. Our profession is growing and extending its reach. Our volunteer corps is growing – with new faces, new skills, new expectations but with the same dedication to service that has characterized volunteers in this country since the beginning. DeToqueville would still recognize us. We can also have confidence in ourselves as individuals: confidence we’re doing the right thing, making a difference and utilizing vision, mission, and values to engage people as donors and volunteers who will find great rewards in a time of great stress by getting involved with us.

Be patient, but persistent.
This is a time for patience with the things we cannot control (economy, terrorism) and patience with our donors (who are feeling a loss of control as well). We must let them know that investment in our organizations is about the future, that we’re in this for the long haul. We cannot succumb to the corporate measurement standard of one quarter at a time: we have to look backward and forward and see the distance we’ve come and the distance we still must go. But patience must be accompanied by persistence (lest your very existence and the people you serve be jeopardized). Go back to funders who have turned you down and find out what you can do to earn their support. And keep stewarding donors whose giving has diminished or stopped. They will come back.

Keep driving towards the light.
My great-grandfather was a visionary man. A rancher, California pioneer, and sage, his philosophy – which he passed along to my grandfather who in turn passed it along to my mother who gave it to me – was to keep driving towards the light. To him, the light represented hope and the future and, as a pioneer often charting his own path, it was a very real orientation point as well. In my view, it is a good philosophy for us to adopt in 2003. Be resolute about driving towards the light. It will impel your organization forward, and allow you to fulfill your dreams for what you know you can accomplish.

Kay Sprinkel Grace is the author of the Ultimate Board Member's Book, Fundraising Mistakes that Bedevil All Boards and Over Goal! What You Must Know to Excel at Fundraising Today, all of which may be ordered from Emerson & Church, Publishers. Kay is a prolific writer, creative thinker, inspiring speaker, and reflective practitioner. Her passion for philanthropy and its capacity to transform donors, organizations, and communities is well-known in the U.S. and internationally. Kay lives in San Francisco and is an enthusiastic photographer, traveler, hiker, and creative writer. When not writing, speaking, or consulting, you can find her with her children and grandchildren who live in San Francisco, upstate New York, and France.

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