Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

The Foraker Group Blog

Recently we conducted a survey of the mood of the Alaska nonprofit sector. We wanted to measure what we had been hearing anecdotally. The mood survey is complete and we received a representative sample from organizations across the state and sector. What we learned didn’t surprise us – you are anxious. The more revealing answers lie in the details. Overall, board members have more anxiety than CEOs. This is interesting on several fronts: 1) There are more board members than CEOs so the anxiety has a multiplying effect. 2) Board members typically represent other sectors of our economy so they have a different perspective of how the economy is affecting the work. 3) CEOs are particularly adept at dealing with challenges and difficult situations – it almost comes with the job description, so perhaps while things are generally bad, it is relative. 4) Finally, it is important for CEOs to know the board’s overall demeanor as it will have an impact on how information is shared and how decisions get made.

So what are you anxious about? First, you are concerned about the Alaska economy and the lack of a fiscal plan. More than federal issues or politics, more than mission-specific issues, you are concerned about our economy. While this is not a surprising result, it shows how deeply the nonprofit sector is intricately woven into our Alaska economic landscape. We are partners with state government and we work best when we remember that. Yes, you have mission specific issues you are concerned about and, yes, you are concerned about healthcare and, yes, there are national issues that cause anxiety – but we live in Alaska and we serve Alaskans and that is where we are focused.

When we asked you about funding, the most dynamic area was individual philanthropy. Your earned income was up, your government money was down, and individual philanthropy was better or worse depending on your organizational strategies. It seems easy to jump to the conclusion that philanthropy should go down in a slow economy. But in many cases we are watching individual philanthropy grow as Alaskans invest in the missions and causes that matter to them.

So what do you want? You want what every other industry in Alaska wants. You want stability and predictability. If the news is bad, you want to know so you can plan and not just react. This is the message that we took to the House Finance Committee earlier this month – the nonprofit sector is a strong part of the economy and as their partner we want to be at the table in finding solutions. We also pointed out that the needs don’t stop when our services are cut from the budget – they only grow and get more expensive. We are doing the work. We are anxious about the future. And we are ready to do our part so that Alaska is well served.

So what now? Of course, the tempting thing to do with a survey is to say “that’s nice” and keep moving without a second thought. Instead, I encourage you to take the data and turn it into your own action. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Put the topic on your board and staff agendas. Find out from your own team how everyone is feeling. Learn how this is affecting your decisions.
  2. Ask the team how you can begin to plan and not just react to the economic conditions we face. Are you ready to do some financial and/or program scenario planning?
  3. Call or visit with your legislator. Let them know exactly how the state fiscal crisis is affecting your work and where you see opportunities for creative thinking and solutions. Come to the table ready to offer ideas.
  4. Ensure you have a solid fund development plan that is focused on donors and is attuned to the economy. Special event fundraising was never a very good idea for raising money and in a challenging economy it can be even worse.
  5. Many of you reported changes in staffing because the government has shifted the responsibility for services to the sector even more. Understand how you will financially manage this shift in a way that maintains your values and commitment to your employees to pay them a living wage.
  6. Review your annual plans and long-term strategic plans to ensure you are ready to meet the challenges ahead.
  7. Never let a crisis go to waste. If you see opportunities to collaborate with others to identify regulations and red tape that is hindering your ability to serve the community, or that you could save your organization and the state money while ensuring a high level of accountability, transparency, and ethics, then band together and work for change.
  8. Take the first steps or next steps in building trust with partners to radically change the conditions of those you serve or the environment in which you operate. Partnerships are slow and take trust. Start today.
  9. Get support. Nothing creates more anxiety than feeling like you are all alone. Find a peer group, a social group, a network. Take a class, go to a professional gathering, phone a friend, and call us. We are ready to support you and your work.

These are just a few ideas. If you want help navigating any of them or want some additional action steps. Let us know.

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