Monday, March 23, 2009

Non-profits and Starbucks

It's an interesting time to be working for or with non-profit organizations.

In our households and our for-profit workplaces, the decision-makers are conferring daily on the new realities of the current economy. A non-profit board, however, might have only met three or four times since last fall's events with the banking industry and the stock market; since we started changing the way we talk about our economy, from using terms like "slowdown," to using terms like "crisis" and "Depression." Many non-profits have gone from "uncertainty" to "losing a third of the value of our endowment" between two board meetings.

One anecdote that I've shared with the executives and the boards that I've been able to address in recent months, is to remind them that Starbucks Coffee -- which had 165 stores at the time -- had its initial public offering in 1991, early in the previous worst recession. I would argue that their success came not only in spite of, but partly as a result of, the economic climate of the day. They were offering an inexpensive luxury to a huge market that was cutting back but not destitute.

There are always opportunities to be had in environments where people are changing their habits. How can non-profits take advantage of that fact without changing their mission?

From a fund-raising standpoint, two organizations that I work with have postponed major campaigns that I had hoped would be underway by now. As much as I would like the revenue, though, I agree with their decisions. But, I have urged them both, don't simply withdraw into a bunker and try to ride this out. Take the effort and energy that would have gone into major gift cultivation this year, and redeploy it into more aggressive efforts to build your base and improve the results of your annual fund.

Other organizations are deferring major capital and endowment campaigns as well. Some of the charitable dollars in your community that would have been earmarked for major gifts just may be available in smaller amounts for operating and special project support. At any rate, the key is to be in regular communication with board members, donors, and constituents.

It works in business as well. When my salaried friends ask me if I'm keeping busy, I have to laugh. In climates like this, I'm busier than ever. Prospecting is being busy, right? And one of the reasons I'm able to sleep at night is because I look forward to next days when I'm going to be touching base with five or ten prospective customers or partners. That's my advice to everyone else as well.

In fact ... we ought to have the affordable luxury of a cup of coffee together!