January 17, 2021 — Leaders everywhere are struggling to cope with, and plan for, the ongoing effects of the novel coronavirus. This is especially evident in the nonprofit community where 50% are experiencing reduced philanthropic revenue and donations, according to a recently conducted Nonprofit Finance Fund survey. Even more are anticipating larger budget shortfalls as the reverberations of COVID-19 are fully realized. For far too many leaders in the nonprofit space, there is a very real fear of capsizing.
Ten years ago, in the wake of the Great Recession, the situation was eerily reminiscent. I had just taken over as President and CEO at American Humane, the country’s first national humane organization known for its rescues, and found an organization in need of a rescue. Faced with an uncertain future we needed a plan to stay afloat. We struck a course forward by putting our guiding mission – to help animals whenever and wherever they are in need – above everything else.
For non-profits looking to navigate equally choppy waters today, I have one critical tip: refocus everything around your mission. All business decisions should be informed by, and in support of, your mission.
Focusing on mission is not a self-evident tactic for non-profit organizations. According to reports, a quarter of nonprofits do not have a strategic plan in place that unifies the board, staff and donors around key decisions. Solidifying your mission, and your plan around it, will enable your nonprofit to coordinate across all fronts.
Even in the best of times, when donations come more readily, nonprofits still struggle to keep the doors open. In fact, out of the 1.5 million nonprofits registered in the United States, one in three exist for fewer than 10 years. Time and time again, shaky finances are the culprit for an organization capsizing when headwinds start to howl.
When organizing around a mission, nonprofit leaders must ensure their programs are fully funded and fundable. At American Humane, we recognize the importance of our mission and commit to ensuring that all programmatic efforts are fully funded – that means we make sure our rescue operations can pay for themselves just as our No Animals Were Harmed Hollywood certification program can pay for itself. It’s not enough to deliver medicine, food and care to animals in need, we must ensure that we can pay for those resources.
The chain of command, from the top down, that deploys resources to animals in need is composed of ethical leaders. When hiring leaders, find people who are inspired by the mission and will delegate work well. One Jordanian study of 160 municipal employees found that those who received delegated authority were more efficient, effective and empowered. The work, not who receives credit, is most important.
As we always say, trust but verify when it comes to hiring practices and delivering on objectives. More than four in 10 nonprofits do not have formal structures in place to evaluate workplace performance. Hire ethical leaders and then ensure that they are doing right by donors and the constituencies your organization serves.
Without stable finances, it can be hard to commit to new initiatives and projects. After all, three in four nonprofits do not have enough cash on hand to cover more than six months of operation, according to the Nonprofit Foundation Fund. When unexpected circumstances like an economic recession or global pandemic hit, it can be difficult to justify new costs. If a program will contribute to a nonprofit’s mission, however, then effective leaders will take it on.
When I assumed the helm American Humane, we had plenty of good reasons to shut down programs, but when opportunity knocks you must answer. As we were fighting to keep the organization afloat, we also premiered the Hero Dog Awards, an annual competition to find America’s top dog that is aired annually on the Hallmark channel. Just this year, we celebrated our 10th annual Hero Dog Awards show. Over the past decade, the show has served not only as a fantastic celebration of the human-animal bond, but a way of expanding our reach and impact.
At the end of the day, mission determines whether a nonprofit stays afloat. Everything else, the finances, the hiring decisions and the programmatic deliberations all play a critical role in delivering on the promise of the mission.
By refocusing on our mission 10 years ago, American Humane was able to not only deliver on its mission but also expand its humane reach by 2,000%. Today we improve the lives of some 1 billion animals every year. A decade ago, that number was just 50 million. We recently celebrated our 144th birthday and, thanks to the work we put in during the aftermath of the Great Recession, and today during the global coronavirus, I know we are poised to build a more humane world for the next 144 years.
Robin R. Ganzert, Ph.D., is president and CEO of American Humane, the country’s first national animal welfare non-profit. She is the author of the new book, Mission Metamorphosis.