As schools are called off for the rest of the year, toilet paper flies off the shelves, and shelter-in-place orders are announced, anxieties are high. Everyone is worried about money, jobs, health, how to stay sane in the coming weeks – or at least I'm pretty sure it's not just me!
And then there's another layer of worry – the worry that comes with running a small nonprofit in the midst of an international crisis.
It's not just about whether you can make ends meet – although that is a biggie. What if you have to shut down? What happens to your mission? Do you just give up? How do you make decisions for the organization when everything about the future feels uncertain? The anxiety starts to spiral when you go down this thought path.
I'm here to tell you: it's still possible to grow and move your mission forward. Fear and uncertainty will drive lots of little orgs to make panicked, short-sighted decisions – you don't need to be one of them.
Here are a few tips I have for small nonprofit leaders (or really anyone) navigating these uncharted waters:
Yeah, yeah, you hear this message every time you board a flight. But have you really thought about what it means? Even when a loved one can't breathe, you have to help yourself first. You're no good for anyone else unless you can breathe.
If you're getting that chesty-anxiety pain, you're not breathing much right now.
Things feel shaky and uncertain. If you're panicking and catastrophizing about the future, you're in no place to make important decisions for the nonprofit. You've got to take care of yourself first. For me, that means eating good food, getting enough sleep, doing yoga with my trainer over Zoom, and writing in a gratitude journal. Get your mind right. Or as right as it can be.
These are scary times for everyone, so I don't expect you to be able to be 100% calm and rational all the time. But be sure to take steps to manage your stress – it's important for you, and for your decision-making at the org.
A colleague snaps at you over a totally innocent comment; your kid throws a nuclear-level tantrum; your mom is sending you news headlines in the middle of the night; your executive director checks in with you 3 times as often as normal – or it's radio silence. This is one of the rare times when you know for sure people's weird behaviors have nothing to do with you.
Stress and worry leaks out of people in different ways. Be ready to exercise that empathy muscle and forgive them for it.
In the nonprofit sector, there's no such thing as making unilateral decisions. We operate through a board of directors – meaning you need to be able to work together. Avoid the petty bickering as much as possible and lean on each other instead. Acknowledge that this is hard and emotions are harder to control.
Lots of us are anticipating the squeeze of what a recession might mean for our finances, personal and business. While it's absolutely the time to plan for what's to come, that doesn't mean you should just slash all your expenses—especially not the core services. You're going to need your marketing and fundraising consultants, your CPA for financial advice, your lawyer for the million sticky issues coming up, etc. The way you survive this is by staying strong.
Yes, there may come a point where you cut core services, and those are hard decisions. But the first action isn't cutting what holds you up. You already know the board and/or staff can't do those things perfectly in-house – that's why you have supports (and the mental stress everyone is under isn't going to make them better at filling in). Take a deep breath. Work with your support people to make a plan for the organization.
Okay, I admit that this one is easier said than done. It's hard to know what the "right" decision is when we don't know what's going to come out in the news this afternoon. And it feels like things we could count on are now shifting under our feet. That's not an excuse to act rashly or rush in to "action mode." Action feels productive, that's why people go crazy buying up toilet paper in a pandemic. But take a beat and think things through and you've got a better chance.
Consider your options and consult professionals. We're here to help.
If your nonprofit is facing pandemic-related issues, I'd be happy to help discuss it with you. I've created a special consult package with a reduced price so more nonprofits can get the help they need. Check it out at https://birkenlaw.as.me/urgentcare.
Jess Birken is the owner of Birken Law Office, a firm designed to help nonprofits. Ideal Client Engagements are nonprofits looking for a strategic partner who will give pragmatic advice and keep business operations on track so the mission work stays a priority.
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