Friday, January 23, 2009

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Looking back, 2008 was truly a financial tsunami for many people, replete with bankruptcies, lost jobs, and home foreclosures.

But the financial upheavals were not restricted to individuals, big corporations, and governmental entities, they also took a toll on nonprofit organizations, both secular and religious, with one segment of the religious community especially hard hit by the alleged Madoff Ponzi scheme.

As the “talking heads” searched for terms to describe what would have saved us from the financial crisis, they dusted off old-fashioned words like “integrity,” “transparency,” and “accountability.” Interestingly, those are the watchwords of the evangelical community—particularly ECFA members. The secular media promoted our fundamental concepts!

Looking forward, the current financial crisis and economic downturn could have a very positive effect on Christian organizations. Yes, this is counterintuitive but very possible.

Prosperity can insulate nonprofits from reality. Innovative changes in nonprofit organizations come when the tension is greatest and resources are the most limited. That’s when nonprofits become more open to rethink the fundamental way they operate.

Innovative thinking may also cause ministries to collaborate in new and significant ways.

The economy should have at least three positive impacts on Christian nonprofit organizations. They are:
  1. The focus on staff. While balancing the budget is fundamental, equally important is the proper care and respect of staff—yes, even in times of salary freezes and layoffs.

    The Bible implores us not to borrow concerns from tomorrow. “So don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will have its own worries. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matt. 6:34). Still, many employees are anxious about their future with your organization.

    Morale doesn’t have to plummet just because times are uncertain. Ensure open communications between ministry leaders and staff and be consistent in the day-to-day treatment of staff. Look for ways employees may contribute to the organization’s efficiency and effectiveness goals. Ask employees for help in developing possible solutions.

    Peter Drucker often said, “People are not a cost. They are a resource. Every organization must assume full responsibility for its impact on employees.”

  2. The focus on donors. When money is tight, the historical tendency of charities, even many Christian ministries, has been to “turn up the heat” on donors—use “emergency” language, place a large “URGENT” stamp on the front of appeal envelopes, and increase the frequency of appeals.

    These techniques are diametrically opposite of the philosophy shared by Wes Willmer and his colleagues in Revolution in Generosity. If there was ever a need to focus on transforming givers’ hearts and lives towards God-focused stewardship, it is now!

    This is a time to minister to donors—many of them have been significantly impacted by the economy. It is a time to clearly communicate accomplishments—to focus on ministry outcomes, not just outputs.

    Donors want to hear how your ministry is doing—in fact, they are curious. But they don’t want to hear how many days you expect to keep your doors open. They want to hear what steps your ministry has taken to live within your budget—what innovative concepts you have adopted to better steward the resources God is providing.

    Like a functioning economy, the evangelical community is held together by a web of trust between donors and the ministries they support. This is a day to enhance that trust factor with your donors.

  3. The focus on your mission. Revenue streams may be tightening, expenses may be rising, the clock is ticking, and your board and employees may be getting nervous.

    The IRS is increasing the pressure for more governance policies and disclosure. Your auditors want you to raise the emphasis on fraud prevention. And, to please the Internet raters, you try to keep your overhead low without threatening sustainability. What a balancing act!

    It is similar to being on the football field when the game is on the line. Executing under pressure equates to making decisions, calling plays, and managing the clock.

    In times like these, it is challenging to keep your focus on your mission—and yet, focus we must! These are days to be crystal clear about what your ministry intends to do, why it intends to do it, and how much progress is being made toward the mission.

Closing. My prayer is that, during this economic crisis, Christians and Christian organizations will powerfully demonstrate to a watching world the importance of seeking God’s goals and abiding in His peace.