Sometimes there’s nothing like a painful recession to make us better than we were. The other night, I was cutting my husband’s hair. There isn’t much too it (the haircutting job or his hair); I just grab the $12 clippers and five minutes later, he’s neat and trim and happy. As I buzzed along thought my work, I was reminded that a few years ago, he was paying someone else to do this job. When things got tough around the country and we wanted to improve our family’s recession-fighting skills, we decided to buy the clippers (less than the cost of one haircut plus a tip) and turn our patio into our own personal salon. Since then, I’ve learned that as long as I don’t say, “oops,” it works for us, and we don’t plan to give it up now that the economy is turning around, albeit slower than an iceberg shifting course.
So, why this personal musing? Well, there are probably some things your nonprofit did during the recession that were reactions to less donor income, a need to cut costs, pressure to “work smarter,” or whatever was the prevailing mood at your organization. Once things are back on course, it’s tempting to breathe a sigh of relief and go back to the old ways.
But should you?
Like my foray into becoming a one-man-only personal hair stylist, there are some things that you maybe shouldn’t change . . . at least not without a lot of thought. For example. . . .
Being grateful for who you have
Did you find yourself thanking your donors more for their support during lean times? Were you quicker about getting out receipts, more apt to pick up the telephone and call to express gratitude, and creative about finding ways to show your appreciation?
It’s easy to say “We must never take our donors for granted,” but harder to do when we aren’t feeling the guillotine called “Recession” rubbing against our necks. But look at what you are doing differently now in the “thank you” department. Did your donors feel a positive difference? Can you really afford to give that up?
Looking closer to home for donors
Perhaps one way you kept your work funded during the recession was to work harder to reactivate lapsed donors. If so, you should be grateful to Wall Street for helping you rediscover a great source of “new” supporters.
When times are good, it’s easy to write off lapsed donors as a “cost of doing business.” Sure it is, but just like the grocery store that turned down its lights to conserve energy and found it didn’t hurt sales, we can keep doing things that reduce our expenses even when the pressure is off. Continue your strategy – or develop one – to renew lapsed donors. And don’t just keep sending them the same old, same old (and then complain my suggestion didn’t work). Lapsed donors have become adept at ignoring you; what are you going to do that shakes them up and rekindles their excitement for your mission?
Making “creative” the norm, not the exception
When donors were scrutinizing every spending decision, parting with dollars a lot less freely, many nonprofits got very creative. It was no longer good enough to say, “Support our cause. We’ll do good things with your money. Trust us.” Instead, we figured out dollar handles that had evaded us for years. Program staff and fundraisers came together and developed ways to “sell” the work to donors that made sense to everyone.
Perhaps we cared more about the stories, knowing that we couldn’t just rely on a few facts to generate a gift. Hearts and heads were both engaged, and our mailings and e-mails stood out not because they were more expensive, but more engaging. How can you keep that creative passion alive even if it’s not essential for survival ?
Raising the body count just because you can
This won’t fly with either presidential candidate, but I’ll say it anyway – don’t rush out to hire back all the positions you eliminated during the recession. Sure, some left a big hole, and remaining staff had to pick up the pieces (sometimes really large pieces). But let’s face it – you weren’t doing everything wrong before the recession, but because of it, you’ve had to learn to do some things differently – and that may mean better.
Will you hire differently as a result of these learnings? Are there different skill sets, or did some staff pick up new tasks that stretched them into becoming far better employees than they were pre-recession? Having the largest head-count on your team isn’t the right measure of success. Instead, focus on having the right balance of people who can get the job done and have opportunities to grow and learn and surprise you – and sometimes even themselves.
So, that’s my list. What changes did you make to survive the recession that turned out to be smart strategic decisions? Share them in the comments below, since it’s never too late to learn another good idea!
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.