Relationship reckoning – reorientation – reassessment. These words don’t just reflect trends coming out of the pandemic but also reflect behavior we see every day in our board rooms, staff rooms, volunteer pools, and maybe even in our personal relationships. We are indeed in a state of flux in our connections to one another and in the ways we choose to spend our time. I say this not as an outsider to it all but as a person who is both living it and seeing it across the sector.
In my lifetime, the only point of mild comparison to what I see today is what happened after 9/11. Americans made one-time donations to a common cause more than ever before, and then shifted their giving and volunteerism dramatically to areas that mattered more than whatever they had been doing before. This was a reckoning in the sector on a massive scale as we watched shifts in giving of both time and money play out over a few years. Back then and today I have explained it to myself as a reckoning with our own mortality, essentially asking “Is it worth it?” Of course, 9/11 and the pandemic are vastly different, but at a large scale we are seeing similarities in behavior as people consider what is important in their lives and then making different decisions about their work, money, and volunteerism. And, of course, there are also compounding economic factors both at the state and national levels that make these choices even more poignant.
All this shifting, rethinking, and transitioning can feel incredibly personal as someone leaves your organization’s board, staff, or volunteer team. I have felt that, too. It can feel isolating, like it might only be happening to you. And it can feel overwhelming because, of course, you want the person to find their own peace in their choices, even as those choices impact your mission. By all accounts, it is a lot.
The consoling news is – first, you are not imagining this and you are not alone, and second, this is a phase. We have named this time before as liminality and reminded ourselves that we can get through to the other side. We have to hold a vision of the future that defines where we are going and why it matters. We have to come together to navigate through to the other side because support is a sign of leadership strength. And we have to hold all the ambiguity of this time as a gift that helps us better recognize our assumptions. It is true that with ambiguity also comes the more difficult news – we don’t know how long this phase will last.
Since this is where we are together, we are leaning in with you by focusing on tools and resources that can help get through this time of shifting priorities.
Attending to shifting volunteer board service
New research is available on volunteerism and the impact so far of the pandemic. AmeriCorps, in collaboration with the U.S. Census Bureau, has released its annual Volunteering and Civic Life in America report that shows volunteerism trends at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The research finds that formal volunteering through organizations dropped from 30% of the public in 2019 to 23.2% in 2021. While the data for our state continues to show the generosity of Alaskans with their time, we also see big shifts in our more formal volunteer roles like board service.
One tool to help you with shifts in your board is our newly launched Alaska Board Match site. A dream in the making, this tool is an easy and accessible way to attract new board members to your awesome teams. Let us be clear, we are thrilled that every current Alaskan serving on a board is an important member of your team AND we need to always cultivate relationships for future board members. Our goal at Foraker is for every nonprofit to have a clearly defined process for strategic recruitment, thoughtful engagement, and a graceful exit. This cycle should not happen by accident. Instead the process must be thoughtful and managed through a board succession plan, which differs from a staff succession plan in several ways. Importantly, both plans have purposeful action in common as they both attend to the planned and unplanned departure of key people on your team. The board match site is not a magic wand for the whole plan, but it does break through the common refrain of “where do we find people?” that often gets groups stuck by inaction. We have big plans for the future of this site including the ability to sort by region and subject area interest. However, before we can do that, we need even more people and nonprofits to log on and take part. You can help make that happen by sharing the tool with your professional and personal networks as a way to help Alaskans who want to spend their time in meaningful ways engage as board members.
Attending to shifting workforce
Since we devoted our last newsletter to this topic and the challenges and solutions we propose, I will be brief here only to say what so many of us are feeling. The challenge may be fewer available people because of out-migration in our state, but the real issues lie in low or stalled access to unrestricted cash to meet the marketplace demands of the workforce. Yes, there are many more issues at play. But when it comes down to it, if we can’t access unrestricted funding from private foundations, corporations, individuals, and government sources, then our ability will be reduced to deliver the services our community needs.
Attending to shifting charitable contributions
Just a few days ago, we stood outside the capital in Washington DC with some of the nation’s leading nonprofits and our stalwart partner the National Council of Nonprofits to endorse and celebrate the Charitable Act, a bipartisan bill introduced early this month in the U.S. Senate. The history in a nutshell of why it matters to Alaskans is that before tax reform in 2017 about 22% of Alaskans itemized their tax returns. One of the long-standing benefits of itemizing was the ability to deduct charitable contributions to 501(c)(3) nonprofits. Since tax reform, roughly 5% of Alaskans now itemize. Of course, Americans (and Alaskans) are not solely motivated to give to causes they care about because of a tax break, but it does matter, and the data proves that without it we are worse off. Nonprofits are not supported in the way that helps them achieve more mission and individuals don’t get a tax break for doing good in the world. Additionally, private giving can’t be fully leveraged against government and corporate contributions.
For those of you tracking this issue, you might remember that in the CARES relief package there was a small incentive to encourage more Americans to support nonprofits who were hit hard by the pandemic both in their mission work and as employers. That relief is no longer available. The new Charitable Act seeks to create a more substantial and longer lasting incentive for non-itemizers by allowing deductions to charitable organizations up to one-third of the standard deduction – or up to $4,600 for individuals and $9,200 for those filing jointly. This could be so good for Alaska’s nonprofits and Alaskans. While charitable giving can never replace – nor should it – the partnership we have with government to deliver services to Alaskans and Americans, it will help us leverage every dollar. We encourage you to support this legislation by urging our delegation to stand with us as the bill makes its way through Congress. To learn more, read the press release announcing the bill, text of the bill, and joint letter by 44 organizations (including Foraker) from 40 states and the National Council of Nonprofits and the letter from the Charitable Giving Coalition, signed by nearly 700 nonprofits from 49 states.
And so much more…
While I was in DC, I had a wonderful time with about 15 staff from each of our delegation offices exploring the scope and scale of Alaska’s nonprofits and the fundamental role we play in our state’s economy and communities. We also explored many of the long-standing and new services and tools in our Foraker toolbox. In addition to the classes, leadership and personalized organizational support, we also walked through the Pre-Development Toolkit which is designed to help nonprofits, tribes, and local governments navigate potential capital projects, like those slated inside the Infrastructure Bill, and those that might move forward through the federal funding mechanism known at the “earmark.” (By the way, the deadline for submitting earmark requests is March 17. I was cautioned that even though that is St. Patrick’s Day, we should not confuse an earmark request with a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—fair enough.) If your organization has a capital project on the horizon, please be sure you walk all the Pre-D steps. It will save you time, money, energy, and your community will end up with a much better result. We also shared the Alaska Infrastructure Collaboration Committee’s joint website, AKfederalfunding.org, which was created to track federal funding coming to Alaska and the opportunities to collaborate for success.
The reality is that if you consider yourself new or seasoned, or starting up or deeply complex and mature, we are ready to meet you where you are to help you get where you want to go. While we face enormous challenges right now as a state with staffing shortages, decreased volunteer engagement, dangerously slow payments in government grants and contracts, and lower levels of charitable giving, we can reach for the tools together and take steps that feel productive, supportive, and right for us. You are not alone in this reckoning – we are standing right beside you.