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When The Going Gets Tough

We all have our moments of discouragement.  There are times when we are getting beaten up so badly that we would rather throw in the towel than continue to get pummeled.  This situation can occur in just about any area of our lives…personal and professional.  But what do you do when it happens in your nonprofit?  How do you know when to press on or when to give it up?

As it happens, I had this very conversation a few days ago with an acquaintance of mine who runs a small nonprofit ministry.  He and his wife started the organization about 15 years ago and what little momentum they had back in the early days has long fizzled out.  They find themselves practically alone in keeping it going.  Anymore, they are struggling to figure out why they even keep on trying.  Bill is very discouraged and, for the first time, is seriously thinking about hanging it up.  Maybe you are there, too.  How do you know what to do?  Predictably, the answer is not so simple.

In order to make a wise decision, it is essential to honestly evaluate how you got here.  No, I’m not going to pull a Dr. Phil on you and tell you to psycho-analyze yourself.  But seriously, how did your organization wind up here?  Did the mission become unclear?  Did you lose some key people that were not replaced…or fail to recruit key people to begin with?  Did other circumstances (like the bad economy) intervene?  Was it bad planning?  Bad advice?  Founder’s Syndrome?  Understanding what derailed you allows you to focus on causes, not symptoms.  And don’t rely solely on your own evaluation.  As a leader, your perspective is limited.  Ask others in the organization…even your beneficiaries…for their views.  Good decision making depends on an accurate evaluation of your circumstances.

Once you have a handle on what went wrong, you can get down to the hard work of plotting a course for the future.  And by “you”, I don’t mean you alone.  In Bill’s situation, that has been part of his struggles all along.  “You” means the people tasked with governance:  the board of directors.  There are a number of questions you must be able to answer in order to make the right decision.

Is your mission still viable? Chances are, if it ever was, it still is.  Only rarely do circumstances change so dramatically that your mission becomes irrelevant.  If you are among the few who would say “no”, can you reinvent your organization?  Would you want to?  Only you can decide that.  Also, look for “mission creep”.  Could it be that the real problem is that you have allowed your focus to drift away from what your organization is supposed to be about?

Are your programs working? Assuming your mission is still viable, you must decide if your programs are actually working toward the accomplishment of that mission.  We are constantly amazed at the number of nonprofits we see that persist with programs that accomplish nothing, but yet no one in the organization will fix the problem.  They just keep on going thinking someday it will finally work.  Ineffective programs will wear out everyone…leaders, volunteers and beneficiaries.  Do not be afraid to change what you are doing.

Are you trying to do this alone? This one is huge.  We touched on this in our Founder’s Syndrome post a few weeks ago.  In our experience, founder’s syndrome is a fatal flaw for any organization afflicted with it.  For sake of brevity, I will not repeat our discussion on the subject.  Read the prior post.  Suffice it to say, if you are a nonprofit founder or leader and you do not have other motivated leaders helping out, your organization will not last.  If founder’s syndrome is what got you here, get help now.  While you are at it, get a succession plan in place (more on that in a future post).

Can you hold out until things turn around? Be honest about this.  Sometimes the painful answer is “no”.  There are simply times when you know what to do, but you don’t have sufficient time to get it done.  The last two years have seen countless businesses run out of time and file bankruptcy.  Fortunately, most nonprofits can hold on…even if it means putting your programs on hiatus until you can correct some things.

There is so much more I could say here, but I will save that for some future posts.  If you are struggling, take the time you need to make the right decision.  Here’s to better days!

Greg McRay is the founder and CEO of The Foundation Group. He is registered with the IRS as an Enrolled Agent and specializes in 501(c)(3) and other tax exemption issues.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. There have been multiple new hires within the non-profit agency some of the employees were promoted have no degree or experience to hold the job. These job postings were never posted internally, the job was simply given to the person based upon preference and likability. There are several employees that are questioning the why the job was not posted internally. Who can the employers contact regarding the matter without being reprimanded for doing so taking into account that the individual who offered the job and promoted the employee is the chief operator of operations/director of programs.

    1. Office politics affects businesses and nonprofits alike, both big and small. There really isn't anyone external to the organization that would have any jurisdiction. If you feel that the situation was handled unfairly or inappropriately…and you're not comfortable taking this to the executive director…about the only thing you can do is take your concerns to a board member. As a boss myself, I caution you to approach this situation very carefully. There are only a handful of right ways to go about this and a thousand wrong ways. It is not out of bounds to complain about a decision that negatively affected you…but, find a way that elevates your stock and value to the enterprise. If it comes off as petty, you might find yourself marked as a trouble maker. Just sayin'.

  2. Excellent article Greg!! Sometimes the answer IS to shut things down, but a lot of thought needs to go into the decision either way. I've been working with an Executive Director/Founder who is burned out and not nearly as effective as she once was. Some other supporters and I believe in the mission very much and are trying to figure out how to give this woman some support so we can keep the organization going. We'll see what happens, but at least she knows she's not the Lone Ranger.

    Sandy Rees
    Fundraising Coach

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