Stepping Back From the Cliff (or Rekindling Hope for an Organization on the Brink)

My mom was a little concerned about traveling with my brother Frits to Arizona for my sister's wedding. It was a long plane flight, with a connection, and there were several details that needed to get straightened out. He wasn't on a ventilator all the time at that point, but he did need it for sleeping. There were the medications, distilled water, tubes and attachments for the ventilator, assorted other supplies, his wheelchair (not to mention convincing the airline staff that Frits couldn't be transported in one of their standard wheelchairs as he couldn't hold himself up). This was back in the early 90's, I couldn't image trying to manage all that with the regulations for flying in effect today. But in the midst of thinking through all these things, my mom took Frits to see his doctor and ask if there was anything else she should be worried about in relation to the travels. His response has brought us laughter many times - "Just don't get to close to the edge (of the Grand Canyon)". Somehow, that helped to alleviate some of the anxiety of that trip. We had a great time - and no, Frits didn't get TOO close to the edge.

In November, I had a coaching session with the Executive Director of a small organization. Things were in dire straits. Payroll was behind by more than a week. The ED was tempted to throw in the towel, but wasn't quite ready to let go. However, it was easy to get mired in the details and in everything that hadn't worked before. The board wasn't actively engaged in fundraising. The mission of the organization had gotten somewhat fuzzy. And while their program efforts had been successful, supporters had been slowly drifting away. I got the feeling from our conversation that they felt like they were getting very close to the edge. They needed a good size cash infusion - and quickly.

Does this sound like any organization you've been involved with? There are at least seven organization that come to mind for me without putting much thought in to it. Having been on staff with such an organization at one point, I know how easy it can be to slip in to a state of hopelessness.

So how do you start to turn things around? How do you rekindle hope when there doesn't seem to be much left - and when you're feeling like no one else quite understands how dire things are?

Here are a few thoughts to get you started.

First, take a step back - and take a deep breath. You've simply gotten too close to the edge. Find someone safe to talk things through with who will not get drawn into the bleakness of the situation with you. Someone who can look at things from an outside perspective (and preferable someone who is well-acquainted with fundraising and nonprofits.

Review your organization's mission. Is it still needed? Are you clear on what your vision is or has it gotten diluted as you try to keep funding coming in? Reconnect with the core things that the organization was started to accomplish. If necessary make the mental adjustments to reflect what is most needed in your organization today. Ideally, this would be done as part of a board meeting or board planning retreat, but as a first step you can do this on your own. Don't just look at what your organization does, identify how the community will be different as a result of your work.

Next, recognize that the same thinking that got you into this situation will not get you out of it. Spend some time reviewing what you've tried over the last few years, but don't be constrained by it. Put together an outline of a plan (one-page is fine) that includes: (a) what could be accomplished in the next 2-3 years if the money were there, and (b) how you will rebuild a funding base if given the opportunity.

Now, take a close look at who your largest donors have been over the last few years. Is there a foundation whose giving priorities align with your organization? Is there an individual, or group of individuals who were instrumental in getting your organization started? Who have you been out of touch with? Who is still in the area and might want to help be a part of turning things around for your organization? Now is not the time to start trying to build new relationships as it can take 3-6 months (and up to several years) to cultivate a new large gift. If I'm understanding your situation right, you don't have that kind of time.

Go talk to the people you have identified. I know that it's tempting in cases like these to try to sugarcoat the situation. Be honest and see if there is still a place in their heart for your cause.Lay it all out - how much is needed to get the bills back up-to-date, how much it costs annually to run the organization, and all the great things your organization could do - if given the chance.

This next step might catch you off guard, but don't ask for a gift. Ask for their advice on how to get through this time. Chances are, they don't want an organization that they've supported in a significant way to go away. They may offer to make a large gift themselves, or they may be able to introduce you to others who can help bridge the gap between now and when your long-term strategies start kicking in.

Once you have a commitment to get you through the short-term dilemma it's time to start implementing your long-term plan. Start building new relationships, adapt your materials to reflect your vision of how the community will be different. Build your base. And don't wait. Start as soon as you are able. And keep your primary supporter up-to-date about how things are proceeding. If things start getting off track they might be able to help.