Embracing crisis with discipline

APRIL 23 / Mike Grogan



“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
James Stockdale

There is little doubt that we are in a crisis. Our lives, both personally and professionally, confront this reality daily. At home and in our organizations, the stresses and challenges of working and living in a seemingly unending pandemic are manifold. Crisis has come to define much of our existence. As we enter month two of this reality, our modes of working are settling into a new norm. While we know that this state of crisis cannot last, the roadmap for moving forward remains unclear.

There is, however, a definition of “crisis” that we perhaps need to embrace in these times.

In medical terms, a crisis is not just a way of describing the extreme seriousness of a condition or event, it is “the turning point of a disease when an important change takes place, indicating a path towards either recovery or death.” The point of crisis is a watershed moment. It is a point where, if we choose to look, we will find the need to begin making decisions that are existential in nature. Such decisions require resolve and discipline.

Nonprofits are remarkably disciplined in programmatic outcomes. In addition to our roots in service to community, our decades of focus on outcomes and performance measures have built a foundation of program and service excellence that is the hallmark of the sector. That foundation has served us well as we adapted through the initial stages of response to this crisis.

Moving forward, another discipline will be demanded of nonprofits; one that requires strategies that may create tension with our fundamental orientation to client and stakeholder service. The challenge that faces nonprofits now is how to pair the discipline of providing service to clients, stakeholders, and members with the discipline of facing questions that may reduce our ability to serve.

Given the substantive shift in the current and expected funding environments, the return to a normal pre-pandemic state will not be possible for many organizations. Recovery will not be restoration – at least not in the near-term. The brutal facts of reduced donations and changes to government funding and earned revenue are not easy to look at but neither can they be ignored. Though we may take issue with the messenger, there is a “great fiscal reckoning” coming. It has been on the horizon for years, and now is imminent.

There are many paths forward for organizations and there will not be a one-size-fits-all solution. However, all organizations must shift from the reactive – which is a key characteristic of the response stage of the pandemic – to intentional and strategic in making considered choices as to how to proceed in the weeks and months ahead.

For some organizations, a return to the status quo may well be viable. Other organizations will turn to innovation as a tactic to navigate the way forward. There will no doubt be creative and innovative ways of working that arise from this environment. Organizations, on their own and in partnership, will find ways to deliver programs and services in new and different ways. Whether or not such actions are scalable, sustainable, or effective will be known over time. There will undoubtably be voices that will ask us to “do more with less”.  Such a notion may drive some innovation, but more often it will ring as an empty mantra that is divorced from the reality of how the sector has, and will need to, work. The reality is, less gets you less, not more.

Other organizations will choose to “wait and see.” This may well be the best course of action for some, though failing to choose often comes with consequences. Read more here about the consequences of failing to choose.  For some, funding may increase in the short to medium terms as public and philanthropic funding concentrates on immediate need in select areas. It is inevitable though, that over the long-term, funding cuts will continue.

For many, if not most organizations, the choices to be made at this time are substantial and require wholesale changes to either the mix and quantity of programs and services offered or perhaps even to their very existence. These are choices that will take an organization down a path where the future looks distinctly different than the past. This future needs to be considered with resolve and discipline and these choices need to be made with structure and intentionality.

Most organizations are built on a model of strategic growth and development. Programs are added to the overall mix through a combination of available funding and alignment with strategic organizational objectives. Thinking and acting strategically is much easier when funding is increasing or at least flat. When funding is decreasing, it can be difficult to work in the same way. In times of reduction there is a tendency to become more reactive than strategic, yet what is most required now is the discipline to apply the same focus and intent we bring to expansion to a potential period of contraction.

During this time, IntegralOrg has structured our work of helping nonprofit and charitable organizations navigate this crisis around a number of activities that include deepening awareness of an organization’s current capacities through building a commonly held view of those capacities, taking a hard look at the sometimes brutal facts that the sector will face moving forward, and developing strategic alternatives for organizational awareness, refocusing, and reformation.

Building Awareness: Helping organizations arrive at a commonly held view of their current capacities

One of my favourite concepts in our strategic planning process is to remind organizations “not to fall in love with the image they have of themselves.” All organizations have areas of strength and weakness. The challenge is coming to an honest, comprehensive, and commonly held understanding of such things and discussing them openly. Organizational elements that were strong prior to the pandemic and economic downturn can be built upon and leveraged as you move forward. Areas of weakness that have been exposed and magnified by the deepening crisis can be identified and mitigated. At IntegralOrg, we offer rapid organizational assessment surveys and one-on-one consultations to help organizations understand their current strengths and weakness to provide a foundation for moving forward.

Refocusing Operating Models: Helping organizations consider what they may need to let go of

All nonprofits operate with an underlying business model. While the language of business models may not be prevalent in the sector, organizations are built with both programmatic and financial elements, and both are likely to be challenged in the days ahead. As the economic environment shifts radically, program models that may have been impactful and sustainable in the past, may no longer be viable. Reduced funding will inevitably lead to smaller organizations and difficult choices will need to be made. An alternative to paring down all programs bit-by-bit over time, is to undertake an analysis that brings together financial and relative program impact in a structured process. In doing so, a set of imperatives can be developed that provides insight into which programs and activities are strategically imperative to building a sustainable organization. Organizations that engage with this level of evaluation now may well be able to save and strengthen essential programs that would otherwise be watered down over time. At IntegralOrg, we work with organizations to develop program models and service options that are strategic and financially sustainable over the long-term, considering both present and future state in their design.

Reforming Organizational Structures: Helping organizations ask the hard questions about the future.

For some, the best course of action may require changes at the foundational levels of the organization. Organizations that were vulnerable prior to the pandemic may find themselves no longer viable in their current form and may decide to merge with another or dissolve entirely. To arrive at such a decision comes after a long and complex journey that will involve a wide range of internal and external stakeholders. To successfully manage either of these alternatives well requires an integrated blend of supports and services encompassing all aspects of organizational function including board governance, financial and legal compliance, human resources all within a comprehensive change manage process.    

The one certainty about crisis is that it will drive change. Change can be hard. Many of the short-term impacts are apparent as we work through the realities of both the pandemic and the economic downturn and the long-term outlook continues to evolve. As we emerge from the crisis state, the challenges we will face and the changes we will be required to make will be substantial. There will be tension between what we believe we need to do and what we will be able to do. It is from that tension that we must draw the resolve and discipline to make the choices, whatever they best may be, that move us to sustainability.  

“Life is short, and Art long; the crisis fleeting; experience perilous, and decision difficult.” Hippocrates


Mike Grogan is the Executive Director of IntegralOrg. Mike has worked in the nonprofit sector for over 25 years and is recognized for his ability to create effective and adaptive solutions to organizational and community issues. His skills and experience stem from a diverse background that encompasses building organizations from the ground up to developing leading-edge nonprofit collaborative, public policy, and capacity building initiatives.