Eight Rules to Help Nonprofit Leaders Navigate a New World

Dear Readers,

Here is a piece of mine recently published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. ___________________________________________________________________
For years, I’ve lived in Chicago and put the Rules for Radicals, developed by the great community organizer Saul Alinsky to the test, just like so many of my colleagues running the nation’s nonprofits. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the Great Recession, and the changes in the political environment accompanying it, require a new set of rules.

To be sure, some of Mr. Alinsky’s rules still apply:

• Never neglect your base.
• Focus on the issue that gathers the most people across the most constituencies.
• It’s the organizing, not the momentarily troubling situation, that matters most.

But today’s organizational environment is completely different from what it was in 1971 when Mr. Alinsky wrote his manual.

Perhaps most important to realize at the outset of 2011 is this: No matter whether or when we get back to the days of “full employment” and manageable government deficits, the notion that any government leader of any political persuasion anywhere will be comfortable authorizing massive amounts of government money for nonprofits that provide or advocate for social services for needy people is history.

By way of example, just look at my state, Illinois. It is on the brink of bankruptcy. You just don’t go from bankruptcy to largess in any time period that matters in the life of organizations that struggle every day to get the financial fix they need just to survive. This is especially unlikely given the reality that today in the majority of the states, many of these nonprofits don’t hold the same policy positions as the state officials who hold the purse strings.

Further, governments don’t go from bankruptcy to largess when so many Americans, so many of the voters who elected these very government officials, question the basic tenet that Mr. Alinsky and his followers subscribe to: that it is government’s responsibility to finance programs that improve the public welfare and help the helpless.

Notably, these Alinsky followers, the generation that founded so many of today’s struggling nonprofits, and often still runs them, is approaching retirement. Even though the retirement of these leaders may come later rather than sooner, because of the tumble personal and institutional finances took in the recession, their mind-set is already very different from what it once was: They might not admit it, but they’re bone-tired. And bone-tired means only one thing to the committed social-change organizer: Do the right thing every day just as fast as you can, for you might not have much time left.

So this brings me to the “new rules” I’ve developed, rules I think these veteran leaders should take to heart in this new era.

Unless you’re able and willing to turn on a dime, find another job. Cataclysmic times require fast and strategic thinking, not about long-term plans, but instead about short-term opportunities that maximize stability and positive results from programs. No others need apply.

Ambiguity creates opportunity. While people are confused about what path to take, nonprofit leaders can take a chance to shape the agenda and thus build their organizations in smart new ways.

Consistency of message is everything. So right now (with a nod to James Carville), “it’s the economy, stupid.” Just as the voters made clear in this recent election, it all comes back to economic security. Absent that, for example, good health care, good child care, or a good education can’t be achieved. Significantly, to achieve these ends for America’s at-risk families, organizations need to direct their organizing and services to women, for it is women who head these at-risk families.

Operating with the mind-set of an entrepreneur is the only fruitful way to proceed. Successful entrepreneurs take calculated risks, quickly. That way, they get to—again, quickly—learn what works and what doesn’t. Likewise, organizations that do this will quickly build good programs that donors will want to support enthusiastically and people of influence will flock to aid.

Get in on the ground floor with young and new types of donors. Build personal relationships with them that are constant and deep. You don’t have time to wait for older rich donors, who devote most of their giving to elite causes, to find you and give you a pittance. Instead, go out and find the new rich, those who haven’t yet made their mark in the broader community but who want to, quickly. Read the tech pages.

Your board members should be risk-takers. The Sarbanes-Oxley law and other mood-changers have meant new fiscal and legal responsibilities for nonprofit board members. But the green eyeshades won’t suffice. Boards must also be willing to take risks to fight for change.

Staff members should be young and hungry. Hire people half your age to help you figure out how to adjust to this new world. No matter how in-sync you may think you are with today’s changing world, you need people around you who have a different kind of knowledge and have grown up thinking differently.

Consensus is not the optimal decision-making approach in these times. Leaders must be willing to stand alone and say I know what is the right thing to do, and I direct you to do it, forthwith. Otherwise, you’ll be building consensus while people in need go without aid. In an era in which one of every five children in America goes to bed hungry, there isn’t time for consensus. Instead, you need to assess situations yourself, engage staff members in thoughtful discussions to learn their views, and then decide on a path to take and oversee the effort to make it happen, also forthwith.

As Saul Alinsky wrote in delivering his rules: “What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be.” So, too, are these rules. ____________________________________________________________________ Rebecca