Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Nonprofit Trends: Lost in Translation?

STARTING TODAY I'M SPENDING A BIG CHUNK OF TIME shifting the furnishings around in the nonprofit office where I work part-time.  My organization will soon be sharing space with another nonprofit in order to save a bit on rent.  The last time I had to share an office with others was almost 20 years ago and that was with a co-worker.  So, as much as I want to help the bottom line of my association, I'm a little worried about the personal workstyle adjustment I'm facing.
I wasn't surprised, then, when I learned from a group of rural nonprofit leaders earlier this month that workplace sharing and consolidation are trends they're seeing on the horizon.  But, interestingly, no one knew of an organization that was actually doing it.  So far, it's just talk.  Almost in the same breath the group agreed that another trend is the demise of some nonprofits -- indeed, about three cultural organizations in their area were down for the count -- an arts council, an performing arts center, and a sports hall of fame.
None of us, including myself until just now, made a direct connection between the two trends the group cited.  Wouldn't you think that if your organization was witnessing the demise of a nonprofit in your town or region that you'd be all over looking for lessons and putting them into practice?  It seems as though many of us are looking for the lessons, but far fewer are making any type of substantial readjustments.  Perhaps a tweak here or there is enough, but is it?
Is it -- when, almost daily, we are bombarded with tough news from the nonprofit sector?  Is it -- when we're warned that the "new normal" for nonprofits requires a new mindset, an almost complete shift in the way we relate to stakeholders, plan and execute fundraising, and measure our impact?
I fear that for many cultural nonprofits there are far too many that are paralyzed with fear of this uncertain future and by the change that may be required to thrive in it; too many without smart enough leadership who can see the path and help us stumble over it; too many content with waiting it out, to see how the other nonprofit fares before making a move.
I'm heading back to sorting out where my desk is going to go.

Photo:  Deer in the headlights from T Hall via Flickr


marilyn said...

good comments, Ann. Not sure these dots connect....but the dots of disruption turning into dots of change that lead a nonprofit from disruption to paralysis to a new way of being in the world certainly represent the path we all want to be on. My sense in meeting nonprofits around the country is that this "moving toward the future that looks different than the old future" is slowed by a couple key features: One is that we still don't have too many successful models or benchmarks to help us define the way. We need to be sure to share what works....even little stuff. As this helps everyone. And the other is a typical issue with travel over long distances -- a lot of baggage. We have to take those we serve, our boards, our donors and even our staff with us or the journey is not worthwhile. So this is going to take some time, and we shouldn't flagellate ourselves too much for this.

Anne W. Ackerson said...

Thanks for weighing in, Marilyn. I agree with you that success models are very helpful when creating change -- they provide some sense of security when contemplating change and they can help to offset the baggage.

Given that, I suppose every nonprofit has its own tipping point for change. Some embrace change more easily; some can barely make change at all. Given this volatile environment we're in, organizations that are unable or willing to change could be on the road to extinction.