How to plan for the unexpected in challenging times

April 3, 2018

This was first published by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

As nonprofits face growing uncertainty brought on by the unpredictable political climate and adverse immigration and health care policies, the ability to assess and address risk and opportunity — often called risk engagement ― is increasingly important. The value of risk engagement is not limited to this current political environment in which external factors heighten operational challenges, but it is more important than ever to make astute decisions ahead of a crisis.

During the past year, the organization I lead, Community Resource Exchange, has worked with hundreds of nonprofits to manage risks. Many of the groups have developed innovative solutions. For instance, one youth-service organization partnered with a university on a program to help young people build skills to start businesses related to nutrition and well-being. Another collaborated with a hospital on a program to educate people and improve health in the community.

These groups demonstrate that nonprofits can make it through difficult times and emerge stronger, with more effective programming. Here are a few tips to help you guard against, and prepare for, unexpected challenges at your nonprofit.

Understand your strengths and weaknesses.

Assessing where your organization is vulnerable to risk will benefit you and those you serve. Organizations that conduct risk assessments report that they identify specific threats — many they hadn’t considered — as well as needs and opportunities. For example, a risk assessment might reveal:

  • the many ways the board should be engaged
  • a need to seek feedback from the community
  • a need for succession planning
  • a gap in crisis communication planning
  • the need for greater funding diversity.

Our tool, the CRE Fitness Test, can help your nonprofit identify vulnerabilities to better mitigate risk and foster conversations about what your organization needs to ensure long-term delivery of services and programs.

Take a holistic view.
When examining the risks your organization faces, look internally, at all the functions of your organization, and externally, at the needs of the community you serve.

Get specific and, where possible, quantify risk so it can be easily and simply communicated to policy makers, community leaders, the press, and influencers.

For example, in New York City several nonprofits have collaborated to estimate the impact of government mandates that are not funded and government contracts that do not fully cover costs. By tallying the full price tag and sharing the message consistently, these groups hope to raise awareness and ultimately get lawmakers to fix the problem.

Get into proactive mode.
Don’t just advocate against anticipated policies and regulations — which is important — but think about where your organization and the sector want to be in the future. Ask yourself how you can use today’s environment to drive change in the next five years.

For example, a group of nonprofit CEOs serving one community in New York recently gathered to explore new ways to work with other nonprofits, government agencies, and grant makers. Their conversations focused on how they could better serve the community by, among other things, sharing infrastructure and delivering services together. The group also sought input from those they serve and began developing a plan for collaboration over the next few years.

Educate your board of directors.
Keep trustees informed of the challenges your organization faces, what your community is saying, and what you believe you can change. Overseeing risk management is a board’s responsibility, so involve them in risk assessment. They can add a valuable perspective as you develop your strategic recommendations for addressing risk and ensure action occurs when needed.

Talk to each other.
Across cities, states, and organizations, explore new ways to collaborate and work together. Engage other nonprofits, government agencies, and grant makers to work together toward shared goals. Consider sharing infrastructure and delivery of services when more efficient — especially when resources become more limited. No one organization has to, or should, do everything alone.

Foster civic engagement and activism.
This involves education and advocacy: educating constituents on how new policies or regulations will affect them and getting them involved in shaping public policy. You must hold conversations with board and staff members to shape your organization’s stances on issues. You also will need to educate legislators and advocate for their support of your mission. These actions will get the community involved and invested, and constituents will learn how to mobilize and influence public policy.

Being risk-ready is a crucial part of meeting your mission, especially today. With knowledge, collaboration, and a risk-management plan, you can limit your organization’s vulnerabilities, take advantage of opportunities, and empower your organization — while strengthening the social fabric at the same time.

By CRE President and CEO Katie Leonberger

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