Resilience and Response in Times of Change

April 12, 2017

Originally published by NonProfit PRO on April 11, 2017

It’s no secret that the social sector has been part of the front line conversation and action under the new administration. Nonprofit women leaders came together to lead the Women’s March in January; Make the Road, New York Immigration Coalition and The Arab American Association of New York organized protests against executive orders targeting immigrants at New York City airports; and many foundations and nonprofits have rushed to provide rapid response grants, information and community events to help people prepare for changes to policy and funding. As always, nonprofits are responding to the needs of our communities and doing so in a manner come to be associated with the social sector: Innovative and tenacious, with a focus on supporting people first.

But that doesn’t mean many in the sector aren’t fearful of what is happening or what may happen. At Community Resource Exchange, we’ve seen first hand how many of our partners and clients sprung into action for their communities. And we sprung up with them, recognizing the importance and urgency of not only standing in solidarity, but also building the capacity of our partners to face what is ahead.

Internally, we ran a strategy session to brainstorm how we could best utilize our assets to serve the nonprofit community at this time. Externally, we surveyed our clients to confirm what their concerns and needs looked like. Issues like changes in funding, fears of increased harassment and marginalization of vulnerable communities and the struggle to sustain high-intensity engagement came up over and over again.

These challenges are real. The administration’s newly proposed budget includes elimination of funding to the National Endowment for the Arts, a source of vital support for over 400 cultural nonprofits in New York City. Since the election, the New York Police Department has reported a 42 percent increase in hate crime incidents over the same period last year. And we’ve heard from countless clients the stress of managing an already overburdened workload with additional calls to action in this current political climate. It is easy to be overwhelmed when it feels like a new challenge is presented to your organization and community every week. But challenge is not new to the nonprofit sector. Many entered the field with deep convictions of confronting the status quo and pressing for changes that others often view as ambitious or impossible. Nonprofits tackle some of the most complex issues of our time including poverty, racial justice and climate change.

These organizations are built on theories of change that extend over years and decades, persisting through multiple presidential cycles and transfers of power. And while these efforts acknowledge that risks may be a constant in this line of work, the pressures of the current moment have pushed some nonprofits to boldly consider how risk can be reframed and addressed more proactively to serve their organization’s mission.

At CRE, we hold the view that engaging with risk is not only relevant in times of crisis—but at all times—and also a posture that helps an organization make smart investments and position it to grow strategically. Building on this view, last month we held a workshop to equip organizations with tools to address a wide variety of scenarios, including turning risks into opportunities to advance an organization’s mission. The workshop was attended by nonprofit leaders whose organizations serve a wide variety of issue areas including immigration, health care, children and youth services, homelessness and education, as well as government agencies, and was shaped by the responses we had received from our clients in December, ensuring their most urgent concerns would be covered. Participants were asked to identify their organization’s vulnerabilities to risks and were led through a process of assessing, prioritizing and developing risk mitigation strategies. While discussing risk may be uncomfortable and daunting, our consultants emphasized that clarity around an organization’s risk profile also allows organizations to capitalize on opportunities within those risk events.

Conversations that day brought new perspective to the challenges and concerns that nonprofits are currently facing. While budget cuts are expected at the city, state and federal level, participants indicated that there are hopeful signs that more philanthropic dollars will be made available. The threat of rollback or removal of protections for marginalized populations is not imagined, but many nonprofits also see this as a chance for populations and supporters to become more vocal and engaged in causes they care about, bringing opportunity for increased advocacy and training. Fear felt by staff, clients and the community was discussed as a way to welcome new and smarter collaborations with other organizations, working to share resources and knowledge and partnering to fill service gaps. Perhaps the most overwhelming is the uncertainty about what to do next. But our nonprofit attendees also viewed this as an opportunity to revisit purpose and mission and reconnect with the community they serve.

However, given how rapidly events are evolving, the impulse for many organizations is to immediately jump to solutions, whether it be devising a new program area or servicing a new population. In these circumstances, it is easy to mistake reactivity for responsiveness. It is important that organizations take a step back and sit in the experience of those they serve. Using an emerging need from their community as a starting point, we challenged our partners to frame an opportunity and visualize a community member’s experience from beginning to end. This simple framework helped organizations identify the various touch points a stakeholder has with a program or issue thereby grounding the potential intervention in real lived experience. The challenges nonprofits are facing are real and should not be diminished. However, pressing into these challenges can reveal opportunities that strengthen and enhance the relevance and sustainability of an organization.

In times of change it is important for organizations to be anchored with a clear purpose and commitment to the communities that they serve. This clarity cannot be underestimated, especially when the needs all around seem so great. Now more than ever nonprofits need support to be strong and build their capacities in the right way. As the social sector settles into the realities of this current moment, we are encouraged to see that organizations are finding renewed purpose, discovering new potential and pivoting strategies for the days ahead, and we are committed to being there to support and strengthen them in that journey.

By Consultant George Hsieh

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