There can be a silver lining in tough economic times

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The handwringing that is gripping the not-for-profit world these days, because of the recent economic downturn, has a chokehold on our sector right now. Not-for-profits are scraping for funds, reducing services and cutting programs to stay afloat.

When money becomes scarce, it's a natural reaction to reel in services. But this is the time when people are hurting the most and need our help even more than before. While no group wants to cope with less money to serve its goals, there is our golden opportunity facing us.

We need to recognize that we cannot cut ourselves into prosperity. Instead, this is the time to take stock. Everyone in not-for-profits -- including Big Brothers Big Sisters -- should be assessing which programs are truly performing and which aren't. Let's be honest, not all programs work. Instead of focusing on the potential loss of dollars, we need to take an unflinching look at whether our programs are meeting the goals of our mission. Are we feeding the hungry, helping kids stay in school, providing homes for the homeless and the myriad causes not-for-profits are devoted to?

If our programs aren't accomplishing the goals we set, we need to jettison them and create programs that do. It's not just our job and our mission, but our social responsibility to do what we've pledged to do.

This should be the time of unlimited creativity, a time when we call together our boards, staff, volunteers and advisers and come up with creative, visionary solutions to the problems we face. Instead of hunkering down in a siege mentality, we need to try new ideas -- even crazy ideas -- and see what works. Not everything will.

But failure is the chrysalis of our greatest success. Where others see gloom, I see enormous opportunity -- a chance to reinvent ourselves. I'm not talking about new programs for the sake of appearing to salve our troubles. I'm advocating becoming more accountable to the agencies, organizations and individuals who entrust their money to us. We must measure the outcomes of our work and demonstrate results.

When we can show our funders that we have been good stewards of their investment, we not only prove our value, but we rid ourselves of lackluster efforts and -- most importantly of all -- create better lives for those we serve.

So I'm not pessimistic about these economic straits. I'm pragmatic. Let's take this opportunity to discover what best serves our clients. Then we must make the changes necessary to ensure a richer future for our nation's underserved. The time for handwringing has ended and the hour of creative handiwork has arrived. Let's not be late.

Scott Zajac is chairman of the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri and senior managing director of Advantage Capital Partners in St. Louis.

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