Nonprofit survival in these unprecedented times

Nonprofit survival in these unprecedented times depends more than ever on their leaders being willing to listen, evolve and respond. JBL Strategies invited Laura Elmore, seasoned executive director and chair of One Voice Central Texas, to share her perspective on what nonprofit leaders need to be focusing on now.

As an executive director and chair of One Voice Central Texas, a coalition of more than 100 nonprofit leaders, I have realized that nonprofit survival in these unprecedented times depends on their leaders being willing to listen, evolve and respond.

I know, we are all tired of hearing that we are living in unprecedented times. We are, aren’t we? Now more than ever, the only constant is change. I’d like to share with you a few things that I’ve noticed need my attention as executive director of the Sobering Center in Austin, in the event they are helpful to you if you are in a similar role:

Strategic Planning and Budgeting
The PPP loans are in the past, and while COVID still runs around in our communities doing its best to take over, we are past the crisis of over-run hospitals and vaccine distribution to the masses. I imagine that your agency probably had a strategic plan before COVID that seems unfamiliar and almost archaic now. If your agency doesn’t have a strategic plan, you need one now more than ever. A fresh look at the ‘why’ of your agency, a clear process for stakeholder engagement to understand what the community needs from your organization now (this may have changed in the last few years), and a formalized road map is absolutely critical to success and goal achievement. A good strategic plan should come prior to your next budget so that you can set realistic goals and plan for how to drive revenue and expenses toward those aims. This isn’t a luxury you don’t have time for. It’s the meat and potatoes of solid nonprofit management and sustainability.

Hiring and Retention
We’ve all heard of the Great Resignation following the height of the pandemic crisis. Nonprofits are not alone in the struggle to recruit and retain staff. However, we are likely at somewhat of a disadvantage due to lower salaries and difficulties in providing benefits to our employees, making leaving the nonprofit sector a sad reality for some. Make sure you are advocating during your budgeting process, with your donors and your board, to make wages as livable as possible for your area and make benefits as competitive as possible when we are now more than ever losing staff to other sectors. When cash is tight, consider providing other benefits such as flexible work schedules, additional PTO, access to an Employee Assistance Program for stress management, critical incident debriefs provided on site to hold space for current event crises or within agency crises, cell phone stipends, gym memberships, wellness days, etc. However, always remember, your staff deserve to be paid competitively as they are being asked to solve the world’s most challenging problems.

Professional Use of Self
This is the part where my nonprofit leader colleagues tend to check out and stop listening. They tell me they don’t have time to think about themselves. It’s become a bit of a cultural badge of honor in this work to be so incredibly busy all the time. It turns out at the end of all of this, no one gets a medal for being the most-busy and running themselves into the ground. You must put your oxygen mask on first in order to assist others with theirs, so it is actually part of your job. I would go further to suggest it is an ethical imperative that you take care of your body, your brain, and your family so you may show up as the centered, grounded and thoughtful leader your staff/board/clients need and deserve. That means not cancelling meetings where you’ve agreed to take a walk or see a movie with someone you love or just spending time thinking. My father, who was an award-winning CEO and entrepreneur in his younger days, used to tell me “Sometimes as a leader it’s your job to sit and think.” Ever heard the phrase ‘wherever you go, there you are’? This applies to you at work in a leadership role. The best thing you can do for your mission and your team is to bring your best self to the table and nurture yourself first.

In conclusion:
So, my takeaway for you today is that you can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t attain what you haven’t planned for. Leadership isn’t supposed to be about being in charge. It’s supposed to be about taking care of those in your charge. Take care of you first, then your team and your mission, then plan with hope and optimism for the future.

The author

Laura N. Elmore, LMSW-AP is a social worker by training, and a long-time executive director and change maker. She has put her business mind and social work ethics to use in various nonprofit organizations, at both an executive staff and board level. She has built a reputation for being a turnaround leader. Laura currently serves as executive director of the Sobering Center in Austin, Texas, and is also the 2022 Chair of One Voice Central Texas, a coalition of more than 100 nonprofit leaders in the health and human service sector, working to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to contribute to our community and thrive.

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