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There is a line often directed to nonprofits that has been circulating for as long as I can remember. It goes something like this: “If only nonprofits could operate more like businesses.” For sure this is said not to insult, but with the best intentions. But for those of us in the field, who take our role of mission stewardship seriously, the intention is lost because it implies that we are acting recklessly and in disarray while our counterparts have the proven model. I mention this because it seems right now, perhaps more than most times, we should share the way we run our nonprofit corporations and stand up as a model to both business and government. Let us not forget that the C in our 501(c)3, 4, 6, 12, etc. stands for corporation, so there is no reason to limit our way to just us. We are all businesses after all, we simply have a double bottom line – mission and money, where the money provides the ability to do maximum mission.
In these challenging times as a state, with a proposed budget that feels challenging for so many, we can lead our sector as a strong partner to government and industry – not to be like them, but to be ourselves and lead by example. Consider three strengths we can share as we use our mission voices:
1. Strategic decision making: One of the things I say often when working with nonprofit boards and staff is that if we don’t know who we are it is very hard to know where we are going. Equally, if we don’t know where we are going, every road will take us there. In these maxims lay the foundation for clarity of purpose, values, and goals or outcomes. Hundreds of nonprofits and tribes each year across Alaska know these maxims and are driven to plan in a holistic way. They begin clarifying or reconnecting to their core purpose and core values – those ideas that are most fundamental and act as the DNA for every decision that comes next. From there they define success for their mission in terms of how it impacts those they serve both directly and indirectly. It is not a self-serving exercise, but one of understanding how to create and sustain maximum effectiveness with and within the communities they serve. It is from this place that the budget and tactical plans are developed for implementation. What emerges if we do it well is the double bottom line decision making that serves communities. What is also critical about this type of planning, that again so many engage in as a matter of standard practice, is that it is not rooted in crisis. Because we know, from experience, that making decisions in a crisis leads to crisis answers not long-term solutions. As Alaskans and as nonprofit leaders, regardless of how you personally or organizationally fair in the proposed budget and subsequent decisions, I think we can all agree we need clear definitions of success that start with our Alaska values – the values of who we want to be as a state and how we want to leave it for generations to come – before we are able to fully determine the right budget for Alaska. If you are planning to use your voice in this process, which I hope you are, bring the best of what you know as a nonprofit – that we start with our values, move to our envisioned future, and then our goals before we talk about the money. The money just helps us all get there.
2. Values-Based Budgeting: As nonprofits we know that budgets are values-based documents. We can look at our budgets and we can see what is important by seeing what we value. Again, budgets are a means to a larger vision and every line item tells us something about who we are. As nonprofits we can share with lawmakers how the numbers are translated into people and communities. We can share real data, real stories. Without hyperbole, without partisan views, we can just say what we know – good or challenged – about how the budget proposals now and in the future will show up in our lives. We also know from experience that often our vison of what is possible outweighs the money we have to spend. So we work in our budgets to leverage other resources. We prioritize, and when we need to spend from reserves, we have a plan to know how we will get back to a balanced budget. Certainly, nonprofits that have acted out of crisis or overspent without a plan have imposed significant consequences on those they serve and on themselves, so we are not immune as a sector to this approach. And our state’s current situation is not unique to government. Private industry and nonprofits alike have found themselves here before, but we have learned that the more resilient pathway out is a clear understanding of the bigger goals and a series of steps taken over time to get there. We can share our pathway of stability, reliance, and calm in our message to our government partners. Because like nonprofits, government budgets are bigger than we are. They are about the greater good in every way imaginable. When we speak up, we need to do so in a way that the greater good is what shines through, not ourselves.
3. Collaboration: If we know who we are and where we are going, and we know the budget that leverages all of those ideas into more resilient opportunities, then we also know that the people and communities we serve don’t win if we pit ourselves against each other. Already we are hearing a question – if not you, than who? I urge you to not accept the premise of this question. We don’t build our future by pitting one group against another either by people, geography, sector, or anything else. We don’t win as nonprofits in a competitive space. We win when we work to create the communities we want to live in – together. We know how to do this. There are so many great examples. In the last year especially, we have seen some incredible public, private, tribal partnerships based on strengthening outcomes for people and communities. We have also seen some wonderful examples of nonprofits changing the conversation with local governments from competitive to collaborative. Two examples come to mind in Ketchikan and Homer where nonprofits came together to present each other’s requests for local funding. Asked to position themselves against each other, the organizations did not accept this premise and instead found a way to set a new premise – that working with each other rather than against each other is the Alaskan way to win. As you use your voice in the coming months, remember this isn’t about you as a single mission – this isn’t about one sector winning while another is losing – this isn’t about saving your own line item. Rather, this is about all of us – together – creating the Alaska that works for everyone. Be skeptical about the notion that one part of Alaska is not affected by the others. Every decision in every budget – this one and future ones – has an impact on each of us directly and indirectly every day.
These are just three ways we work at our best as a nonprofit sector. I urge you to stay grounded in what works as the road ahead of us as Alaskans is long. The budget process is designed with many steps along the way, and our sector’s voice is essential to the process every step of the way. We won’t all agree on what we say, but I hope we can agree that staying engaged, sharing what we know are tenants of how our sector works best, and offering data and compelling stories about how each number in the budget translates to Alaskans and communities is the best way forward. And that by doing this, we can shift from offering defense to offering solutions that bring us closer to an Alaska where we care for and protect our most vulnerable, educate our children, celebrate our quality of life, steward our vital resources, and find economic prosperity. This is the work for all of us including nonprofits, but it can only be fully realized when we do our part with our government and industry partners. We are all in this together.
Postscript: In recent years Foraker has advocated a path forward that takes into account the value the sector brings to our economy in jobs, private philanthropy, federal funds, civic engagement, and more. We will continue to share this message as we stand ready to deliver those values back to the state. In the coming weeks, we look forward to sharing a platform to collect your data and your stories for lawmakers. We look forward to launching this effort with a diversity of partners across all sectors. We hope you will join us. More soon.