A Panorama of the Nonprofit Sector: What We Learned and Did at ACN’s 2015 Annual Meeting

12/12/2016 11:40 AM | Ed Graziano (Administrator)

By: Catherine Siebel, Impact Assessment for Foundations and Nonprofits
On June 10th, ACN hosted its Annual Meeting, featuring the program, “A Panorama of the Nonprofit Sector: What to Know and Do Within the Changing Landscape”. For the first time, we invited nonprofit organizations to what has traditionally been a members-only event. What phenomenal energy! With a crowd that was nearly evenly split between ACN members and nonprofit organizations, I was thrilled to watch friends and colleagues greet one another and to witness new connections being made.

Equally exciting was the programming, which exceeded our already-high expectations. Moderated by the exceptional Delia Coleman (I routinely tell anyone who will listen that you don’t understand what a skill it is to moderate until you’ve seen Delia work a panel), our group discussion ranged from the difficult to the optimistic – and spanned both theoretical and practical considerations.

A key – and anticipated – point of discussion at the event focused on past and future budget cuts, and what that means for the sector. Judith Gethner noted that Human Service funding in Illinois has decreased by 29% since 2009 – and now faces cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars through the current budget negotiations. Sharon Bush commented: “This is more real than it has ever been. You’re going to be cut beyond the bone.” Asked what kind of changes this dire climate is fostering, the panelists provided a wealth of information. A few key points:

  • Ms. Gethner was the first to bring up “The ugly ‘M’ word – Mergers”, to which everyone nodded. Noting that this may well be a reality for many nonprofit organizations in the coming months and years, panelists agreed that mergers need to be thoughtful and strategic. Ms. Bush noted that programmatic collaboration “requires a backbone organization” – in other words, someone has to take the lead by serving as both the point of contact and the strategic leader.
  • Considerable discussion focused on – to use a well-worn phrase – “The new normal” of blurred lines of social good and philanthropy. No longer can the world be divided cleanly across government, for-profit and non-profit sectors. With more funding for social good coming from the private sector than ever before, how we look at social good is changing faster than we can keep up with.
  • In response, nonprofit organizations find themselves looking toward social enterprises as a way to shore up their funding streams. Eric Weinheimer, formerly the Executive Director of CARA, noted that he oversaw both a successful and an unsuccessful endeavor, cautioning that it’s important not to see social enterprises as a panacea – indeed, social enterprises require significant thought and effort.

So what can nonprofit leaders do in response? How can they effectively meet their mission while managing a competitive and uncertain stream financial future? A few down-on-the-ground thoughts from our panelists:

  • Mr. Weinheimer talked about the skill of “managing up”, i.e., the need for Executive Directors to manage their Board Chairs: “This Board Chair better hold your board accountable.” This includes: ensuring that you and your Board Chair share the same vision and strategy for the organization; confirming that the Board Chair maintains a pipeline of engaged, qualified board members in the wings; and holding existing members accountable for not only strategic advice but meeting fundraising goals and leveraging their expertise in the for-profit sector to maintain financial responsibility for the organization.
  • Pier Rogers highlighted the significant need for leaders to make sure that they have the skills they need to run a modern organization. It requires not only sector knowledge, but also business acumen and the ability to “talk across sectors” – make sure that you can advocate for your sector to anyone, using language they understand (Ms. Gethner recommended the FrameWorks Institute as a resource for framing your organization for broader audiences).
  • Ms. Gethner strongly recommended a few key efforts, including: implementing a thorough and thoughtful contingency plan; dedicating resources to streamlining your donor and funder databases; and having honest conversations with your clients about the realities of your funding situations.
  • Ms. Bush advocated for both program officers and Executive Directors to maintain open lines of communication throughout the ups and downs of a given funding cycle: “Show me your budget sheet. I need to see it so I know what we’re talking about.”

Throughout this compelling discussion, something that struck me over and over was the breadth of expertise that’s required in this changing landscape. At various points throughout the conversation, a variety of knowledge was deemed necessary to deal with these tectonic shifts. A few examples included impact measurement, social enterprises, strategic planning, board development, policy advocacy, data analytics, marketing/branding, and financial planning. No Executive Director can be expected to be experts in all of these areas while running their organization. And yet – this is precisely what they’re being expected to do. As the newly elected President of ACN, I’m proud to say that experts in every single one of these areas not only comprise our membership, but were represented in the room last Wednesday. Our members – averaging over 11 years of experience in nonprofit consulting and spanning more than 20 areas of expertise – provide such an incredible resource to the nonprofit community.

With this in mind, I’ll finish with hopefulness by echoing Mr. Weinheimer’s sentiment: “It’s going to be tough. But I’m optimistic that the sector will come out stronger on the other side.”

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