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On the Brink - One Nonprofit's Story (Right Now)

My conversation with the director of a small museum was disheartening. The institution is staring at closure before year's end. The director continues to explore all possible options -- from fundraising to merger to closure -- but admits any option other than closure will take longer to accomplish than there is time on the clock. Most disheartening of all is the apparent inability of the board to pull together to raise some money. And, we're not talking millions, at least not for the short-run. Less than a couple hundred thousand would plug their operating shortfall for the rest of the year and buy them the time to nurture some of those longer-term options. On some levels, a sort of organizational paralysis seems to have set in.

Not easy stuff. The current financial condition of this organization has been in the making for a dozen years. Some poor decisions were left to fester against hopes for a brighter tomorrow. Course corrections were too little and often too late to make a significant enough impact. Each year of deficits only increased the momentum toward disaster. The question on the director's mind now is 'Is it too late to pull this organization back from the brink?"

This is organizational change writ large. It's disorganized and punctuated by a mix of reactions. What I see from my seat on the periphery is a board and staff that may be trying to manage this change in different ways and at different rates of speed. If you were to ask the director, the board is not moving fast enough to address a cashflow so tight it squeaks. The board seems unable or unwilling to accept the reality of a greatly truncated or dissolved mission -- and many of its members are bitter. Board members may feel that the director isn't doing 'enough' (whatever that may be) to lead them out of the forest. Staff may be feeling helpless or abandoned (and certainly in fear of losing their jobs). I can only imagine the stew of emotions -- anger, guilt, fear, numbness, confusion.

These responses are typical and most likely critical to what could, should and hopefully will come next -- reframing and reorganization. Without them, there is no crucible in which to forge a transformation.

Here's a helpful matrix from from Peter de Jager, a change management consultant, who encourages organizations to examine the level(s) of control they have over change as a way of reframing the discussion and beginning a reorganization process:

In Reality we have no control

In Reality we have control

We Believe we have no control

Type I.a

Normal Grief Cycle... and we work through it.


Type I.b

Normal Grief Cycle... and we work through it.


but... we can miss opportunities, some minor, some huge.

We Believe we have control

Type I.c

Very frustrating -unrealistic –

doomed to failure –


Type I.d

Empowering –

Life affirming –

stimulates growth –

the stuff of heroes –

Very Healthy

Photo: teetering on the edge by Dr H


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