Editors’ Note: For three years now, the Nonprofit Quarterly has charted the progress and response of five nonprofits as they have creatively confronted shifts in the environment. A little over a year since our last update, each of these organizations has something to teach the rest of us. For the previous articles in this series see the Winter 2002 and Winter 2003 issues of NPQ.
In applying the lessons of his book Good to Great to the nonprofit sector, author Jim Collins noted the critical need for organizations to cultivate shared commitment and focus on core values and what those organizations do best, while remaining open to necessary changes in the face of shifting environments.
We would like to involve you in some commentary about the course these organizations have chosen to take. Write to us at the editorial address or via e-mail [email protected] and share your observations with us. You can also tell us about your own experiences of navigating your work through the unpredictable waters of the current sociopolitical storm.
When we last heard from Power of Attorney, a national intermediary established to provide pro bono legal services to nonprofit organizations, it was reevaluating its programs in light of the impending loss of its sole source of funding—a five-year, five-million-dollar grant from Atlantic Philanthropies. POA’s subsequent challenge rested primarily on defending its value proposition while working to maintain funding as a relatively new organization in a difficult fiscal environment.
Allen Bromberger, head of POA, recently reported that he had effectively shut the organization down, with the exception of a few small initiatives, and gone to work at a law firm where he specializes in legal work for nonprofits. “POA has no funding and no staff,” he explained. “So I am doing the work as a volunteer. The scale is significantly reduced.” Despite the lack of money and personnel, POA continues to operate in those areas Bromberger deems as being worthwhile. “It’s actually pretty refreshing,” he said, while indicating the relative freedom he now has from answering to the demands and requirements of funders. Of course, the down side of these developments is that the organization is severely limited in its reach and impact. Bromberger notes, however, that the 50 local pro bono centers POA supported during its five years of funding are still going strong. “The irony is that, while we are going out of business, our local groups are doing great,” he said. “So at least we’ve left a legacy of which we can be proud.” A victim of dependency on a single funding source, it remains to be seen what the future will hold for POA and its programming.
The Southern Regional Council is an 85-year-old organization dedicated to racial justice in the South. As such, SRC was involved in the South’s most acute struggles for voting rights. It has, in other words, walked through fire, achieved great things, and survived. But sometimes organizations need to muster a very different kind of strength to flourish and remain relevant over time.
As is evident in each of these stories, the viability of any particular organization is dependent on its ability to position itself well in its niche. This positioning requires leadership with foresight and a cohesive sense of purpose and goals. So when we got what we thought was a stellar interview from the Southern Regional Council’s new executive director, Chuck Burris, we were encouraged for SRC. Burris seemed to have a strong strategy that brought together a more focused mission intention and a financing design.
Unfortunately, not two weeks later, we learned that he and the board had come to a parting of the ways and he had left after only 16 months at the helm.
SRC has, since we first interviewed the organization in the winter of 2002, had three regular executive directors and one interim. When executive leadership turns over repeatedly it almost always gives its funding and other partners concern. It implies, rightly or wrongly, that the governance system is not able to (1) choose executives wisely, (2) work well with executives, or (3) both of the above. We cannot know what the story is here, but we wish this important organization the best in devising a path forward.
Meanwhile, in America’s heartland, one organization has been asking itself, “What’s in a name?” Following a shift in funding, especially foundation resources, the Family Conservancy, formerly Heart of America Family Services, began assessing its programs and core service areas. Part of its response was to engage board members more frequently in communication about the status and direction of the organization, as well as to reach out to community groups to ensure the relevancy of its services.
For president Betsy Vander Velde, the ensuing dialogue was less about coping with losses and more about how to make a bigger impact. “Back in the old days we interpreted our mission very broadly, we were all things to all people. Now in the era of declining resources, we have realized . . . that we have to allocate our time and our talent and our resources to where we get the greatest social return on investment. We’ve been engaged in a thorough revisiting of our strategic plan and identified clearly our core competencies, which are parenting and early education solutions, helping families in crisis, and helping families overcome poverty.”
The organization is now moving ahead with its new name and new look—the result of a nine-month process involving external consultants and the board of directors. According to Vander Velde, the name “says that we’re about protecting and promoting strong families. It says we invest in families because that’s where children learn to succeed.” The Family Conservancy is also adopting a new approach that tears down the walls between its various service divisions, for example integrating mental health services into its work with child care centers, and putting more emphasis on research and evidence-based programming. As funding has run out for certain programs deemed less aligned with the organization’s core competencies, leadership has made no effort to renew those sources and instead let other organizations step in to deliver those services.
Vander Velde explained that the organization is also attempting to gain more flexibility by generating unrestricted revenues through individual philanthropy. “We’re pursuing a very professional philanthropic course that is much larger than solicitation of money. It’s very much about finding out who in the community resonates with our mission, and talking to them and telling our story, getting them on board, increasing our volunteer base so that we really can increase our individual base of support.” Despite the numerous apparent changes, Vander Velde says that the organization remains true to its culture and values, but with a much clearer strategic focus.
On the west coast, Shanti, Inc. also underwent a leadership transition when its previous executive director, having been with the organization a little over a year and a half, left for personal reasons. Shanti provides resources to people with life-threatening diseases, including HIV/AIDS and breast cancer. The new executive director, Kevin Burns, moved up from his deputy director position with 10 years’ experience in the organization. This change occurred amidst restructuring efforts stemming from a significant budget shortfall, with cuts in government funding and reductions in individual donations. Like SRC and The Family Conservancy, Shanti turned to the community it served as well as to questions of what the essence of the organization is and should be. The result was a concerted effort to avoid cutting services, in favor of trimming infrastructure. This, of course, was a strategy with its own set of risks.
“Our funding was being cut. It was primarily being cut from government sources. San Francisco took its huge hit in the federal Ryan White CARE funding, which was supporting a great deal of our HIV/AIDS programming. Then the City also took some significant cuts that threatened other HIV/AIDS and breast cancer services. So the decision was made to minimize the impact on direct service programs and program staff by cutting into the other areas of staffing. And so what we were left with was continuing cuts to the support from the government and the government funding, which also paid for some of our overhead, some of our indirect cost, which affect staff not directly involved with the programs.
“Hindsight’s always 20/20. The goal was to not cut services at all. So what we did was cut pretty deeply into the infrastructure. I don’t know if, knowing what I know today, if I would have made that same decision. While I’m still glad that we were able to not cut our services at all, it meant cutting into our development, into our finance, into other areas of the organization which are critical in supporting the programming.
“Clearly, we needed to focus our attention on our individual donors and corporate donors. But a downturn in the economy impacted our ability to fundraise from those areas, and with the cuts into the development staff at the same time, we had fewer people to try to capture the dwindling available dollars.
“We had kept a grant writer on staff and that basically became our primary development person. And with the cuts in other areas of the organization, my role as a deputy director was not re-filled when I became executive director. So the director’s position becomes kind of a, I don’t want to say jack-of-all-trades, but basically trying to continue in my previous role while taking on additional roles, such as fundraising, human resources, etc. I