Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Focus on the Future

It’s the New Year and everyone is reflecting on the past and making projections for the upcoming year. Depending on your mood, you are either jubilant about the possibilities or wary of the forecast. These two extremes could easily be justified by reading the news about our sector or the updates on our efforts to fix our state’s economic system for the long term. The rollercoaster of emotions is ever-present but our role, all of our roles, during turbulent times is to find our stability and focus on our strength. After all, the nonprofit sector is the foundation of our communities. We drive employment. We provide essential services. We are the watchdog, and we ask critical questions about the communities and environments where we live. We ensure that Alaskans have opportunities for full expression of themselves through their personal voices, business ventures, and artistic and cultural expressions. In short, our communities, our families, and the ways in which we all personally experience the world rely on us to be strong and stable. This is not the time to panic or get stuck. This is the time to focus.

What does it mean to focus? Using our sustainability model we consider two questions: Who are we? And where are we going? The cautionary tale in a time of change is the potential to lose sight of what is most important and what should not be negotiable – and that’s your core purpose and core values. Some will be willing to compromise those in the name of funding, others might forget that those are their greatest assets to bring to a collaborative relationship. But for many of you, your core purpose and core values drive everything – your financial planning, your program goals, and your staff and board recruitment. For you, every conversation is a values proposition that is clearly coming from a place of strength and focus. It is the gift we can bring to the larger statewide conversation about our economy, and it is the gift we can give ourselves to do the necessary scenario planning for impending change. We have the tools we need to stay focused on what is most essential. We just need to use them.

The second part of focus is asking: Where are we going? At Foraker, we are preparing to ask this question as we embark on a new strategic plan to guide our work into the future. Our last plan has expired and we are pleased to say that we accomplished all of the big, audacious goals we set for ourselves. This was not an easy task, and it stretched us in unimaginable and yet wonderful ways. Our plan, like the plans we help others create, was focused on the definition of success, not the tactics to get us there. That freedom allowed us to stay adaptive and capture opportunities to make progress as they arose. At our staff retreat in July, our team had an important insight that is driving our renewed desire to plan – and that’s the progress we’re making as we implement our theory of change.

Our theory of change measures success in seven layers. For the first 14 years that Foraker has been in business, we paid attention to each of the layers and made strides in each area. However, we primarily focused on the inner four layers – getting clear about how we strengthen individual nonprofit leaders and organizations, along with building Foraker’s internal structure to support this work. There will always be room to improve and strengthen our existing efforts and we will do that. But our future lies in the next three layers – focusing on collaborative and adaptive work within and outside of the sector, focusing on raising our sector voice, and focusing on the impact of nonprofits in strengthening the communities where we live. I am excited about this future. It builds on our strengths and helps us get better at what we already do, and it also stretches our thinking and the services we can provide to each of you.

I don’t know yet what the exact goals of the plan will be. Our board will convene later this month to start that process. But I can make the following promises about how we will approach any of our goals in 2016 and beyond:

  1. We will reinforce the cohorts of peers that we have fostered and have yet to fully develop. The network of nonprofit peer support is like a powerful superhero that can meet any challenge.
  2. We will position ourselves to keep listening. We want to hear your voice, and we will keep finding new strategic venues and vehicles to connect. Stay tuned for a new way you can become involved in public policy topics for our state and our nation.
  3. We will remain vigilant to our relationships – we mean you, our Partners. Yes, we raised our rates for only the third time in 15 years, and we did that with our eye on you. We factored in the very small organizations who could and should pay less for partnership, and we have maintained our commitment to serving organizations in a way that works from your perspective of time, money and capacity. We are staying focused on you.
  4. We will capture the challenge that brings opportunity. We are aware of the challenges for our state, our communities, and for individual organizations. We are in the camp of not letting a good crisis go to waste. We are not sugarcoating the fear we see and hear, but instead of feeding the fear we will focus on feeding the conversations of opportunity. This is the right time to question our assumptions about not just how but why we do our work. There will be so many chances to ask better questions about how we might work better together across the sector, with government and with the business community. This is the time to be adaptive.
  5. We will slow down to take in our mistakes as information. We rarely learn from getting everything right all the time. As people and organizational cultures, being alive means we are capable of learning. When we “go slow to go fast” and are open to risk and failure, we get better. We make mistakes at Foraker. That’s just fine because then I know we are alive and we are pushing ourselves to get better.
  6. We will create space so that curiosity will serve us. This started out as my own mantra in my new role as President/CEO, but it turns out that it serves our organizational culture very well. The saying that “we don’t know what we don’t know” can lead us in circles – instead, we are creating space to welcome the unknown and see what we do with it next.
  7. We will adapt to the change of systems not just structures. This is not a new thought for Foraker or for many others in the field, but the possibilities of how this dynamic changes the conversations about best practices in governance, employment, mission, and fundraising is exhilarating for some and incomprehensible for others. It is the way we are moving. We have glimpses of what that looks like but not the whole picture. Come with us as we explore this world together.

Change is here now and these are the promises we are making on how we will do our work in this year. It will require our own questioning of assumptions and new ways of responding. Soon our whole team will focus on the “why” and the “what” of our goals as we further define future success. As we all launch into 2016, I am curious what promises you are making to your team, your donors, your organizational partners, and to yourself. I encourage you to focus, ask different questions about how the work gets done and gets funded – and stay positive. It would be so easy to do the opposite, but we hope that’s not the path you choose. We are ready to support your efforts. Happy New Year!