The Lessons of 2009 Are Guides for 2010

This past year has been a dramatic one for most non-profit organizations, and professional staff members and volunteer leaders have learned a great deal about sustaining their organizations during the last 12-14 months. At the same time this most unusual period has enabled the leadership of voluntary organizations to adjust the way they have worked. Let’s take a look at some of the more salient lessons from 2009, as it offers us a “Guide for The Coming Year.”

1. Lesson: A Board of Directors must clearly understand its role in overseeing the functions of the non-profit organization. The individual members of the Board, and the Board as a governing body, must have a full understanding and appreciation for their role in maintaining accountability for the overall functioning of the agency, in general, and for the fiscal status of the organization, in specific.

2. Lesson: When the Board fulfills its responsibilities and obligations a strong message is sent to the community. The agency will have established its credibility among its supporters and members of the community.

3. Lesson: True fiscal oversight is accomplished when the Board is not only aware of the financial situation of the non-profit organization but has also been involved in establishing the policies that assure its financial sustainability.

4. Lesson: The greater the transparency of the organization, the greater the chances are of receiving continued to support from public institutions (contracts for provision of service and reimbursements for services provided) and from private contributors who donate funds to the agency. Non-profit organizations should not have secrets and if they do, when the real situation becomes public there will be a loss of trust in the organization’s leadership.

5. Lesson: Continually reporting on the past accomplishments, the present challenges, and the future plans will keep supporters and potential supporters informed as to the status of the organization. This will strengthen the leadership’s connection to individual donors and representatives of public and private institutions that provide support.

6. Lesson: Nothing replaces the personal contact between the organization and its donors. It is very important to maintain ongoing communication with the people who have provided support for the organization whether they are in a position to continue support or are not able to contribute at the present time. The essence of fundraising is really friend-raising.

7. Lesson: The organization’s strength in providing services is enhanced by partnerships and not weakened by working with other agencies. Shared efforts enhance the provision of comprehensive services and bring together a variety of community resources. The message to the broader community, and to the agency’s supporters, is “more is accomplished through cooperative efforts. The added value of pooling resources is providing services in a comprehensive way to the clients. Donors can feel confident they are participating in an effort that is both more effective and more efficient.

8. Lesson: The planning process can not be stopped in difficult economic times. When an organization’s income decreases there is a tendency to cut budgets and to cut back on services in order to balance the budget. Decisions have to be made in a strategic way so that neither the agency nor the clients are harmed seriously. When the recession ends the organization has to be in a position to implement a plan that may or may not re-institute the programs that were scaled back or ended, as well as, initiate new programs reflecting emerging needs. This can be accomplished by having a planning process that is well thought out and implemented successfully.

9. Lesson: An organization that has contingency plans for difficult times is prepared and can respond in a meaningful way that maximizes its resources. As the economic situation improves there is less pressure to think about the need for these plans. This is time to analyze how the present crisis was dealt with and how it could have been handled in a more productive way for the organization and its clients.

10. Lesson: There is no such thing as a “static period” in the non-profit organization’s life during difficult economic times. The leadership of the organization has to respond to changes in a way that strengthens the organization and enables it to respond to the community’s needs. When the organization fails to move forward and deal with the salient issues it will have a deleterious impact on the clients and the community.

These 10 “Lessons” are not only applicable today to most non-profit organization but also provide a framework for understanding of what needs to be accomplished in the coming year. By following these “guidelines” the organization will be strengthened and will be able to function well during the next crisis, when there is one.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.