Secrets For Success During Turbulent Times

May 4, 2009

Wendy Liscow, Program Officer


Non-profit organizations are resourceful, resilient, and let’s face it, a bit scrappy.  With their missions acting as both powerful rudder and faithful compass, passionate non-profit leaders and dedicated staff and boards have navigated their ships through all types of troubled social and economic waters.  The more turbulent the waves, the more innovative they become.

But I am not telling you anything you haven’t lived through.

nonprofit-center-logo2Still, this economic downturn is different from the others.  According to a recent Center for Non-Profits‘ report New Jersey Non-Profits 2009: Trends and Outlook, 70% of New Jersey’s non-profits report that demand for their core services has increased during the past year, and they expect this trend to continue next year.  Yet, 89% of respondents report decreases in nearly every funding category.  For additional resources on the general health of New Jersey’s non-profits, the Non-profit Center has just announced a new “Non-profits and the Economy” resource page that follows trends and provides valuable information on how to access stimulus package funds and other “coping” resources.

So how are these resilient, capable non-profits coping with the economic downturn?  During our recent site visits, my colleagues and I have been learning what our Arts grantees have been doing in response to the changing times.  One story in particular demonstrates  common action steps as well as an especially innovative approach.

state-playbillcoverThe State Theatre in New Brunswick had to cut almost two million dollars from their nine million dollar budget.  Like other non-profits they began by examining every program and every budget line, weighing each program’s importance to achieving the mission, effectiveness and value to the public they serve.  For the State Theatre the sacrosanct criteria was the quality of the art that appeared on their stage; if a program didn’t pass this litmus test it was cut or had to be redesigned.

Next they asked, “for every penny spent, what was the return?”  Again, this line of questioning led to some new workplace practices.  For example, they are cutting back on printed materials in favor of new digital marketing, social networking and e-technology strategies.

Third, President and CEO Wesley Brustad, who is adamantly opposed to cutting staff or  salaries, worked with his staff to come up with a creative alternative approach.  Together, they decided that every staff member would dedicate 20-40% of their time (that works out to one or two days per week) to either being part of a “Revenue Generating” or “Expense Reduction” plan.

For example, education staff members are spending one day working in group sales and another day with the development fundraising department.  The rest of the week they focus on their education duties.  Facility maintenance staff dedicates one day a week to grassroots marketing and posts fliers in areas where the State Theatre previously hasn’t had a presence.   The Director of Production has been getting new sponsors by tapping contacts he has made over the years.  Box office workers make outgoing sales calls when they aren’t taking incoming calls.

money-and-piggy-bank1On the expense reduction side, they identified a need for a volunteer coordinator.  The Press Relations Director and someone in Accounts Payable will spend one day a week on this vital task that would otherwise require a new employee.

The added benefit of these ideas has been a deep sense of unity as they collectively face this crisis. If you would like to ask Wes Brustad about the details of how this plan is shaping up, feel free to email him at

money-from-head1We want to know what steps have you taken to adapt to the realities of the new economy!  Have you tried any of the following examples?

Many organizations have stepped up their fundraising efforts to seek out alternative sources, initiated new appeals, and increased advocacy.  How have you ramped up your development efforts?

Boards have embraced their governance responsibilities and have worked with staff to develop multiple budgets and programming scenarios.  What steps have your Board taken?

Almost all organizations have frozen staff salaries, in the best case scenario, or reduced salaries and cut benefits, in less favorable scenarios.  Many have had to lay off staff from an already lean crew.  What creative ways have you implemented to manage staffing?

die-fledermaus-2009Many are exploring new collaborations and partnerships.  For example, you may have read  Peggy McGlone’s February report in the Star-Ledger of Opera New Jersey’s collaboration with a retirement center which hosted their rehearsal process.  The residents had a unique glimpse into the creative process, and the opera company received rehearsal space and an opportunity to develop community relationships.

Hackensack Riverkeeper and New York/New Jersey Baykeeper joined together to hire a staff attorney so they could increase their impact individually and collectively.  What types of creative collaborations and strategic alliances are you cooking up?

hand-squeezing-the-dollarMany adminstrators have renegotiated contracts with vendors (including payroll to insurance to facility maintenance providers) to improve the bottom line.   What novel negotiations have you been able to devise?

Museums are tapping more and more into their collections for exhibitions, not only saving money on transporting art but also bringing fresh new interpretations and awareness of their unique collections.  What internal resources have you rediscovered and mined?

Performing arts organizations are rethinking their largest, most costly performances and reshaping them to be smaller and more impactful, often by turning them into fund/friend-raising events.  What programs have you retooled or redesigned for greater impact?

We would like to hear your story!  How have you been able to turn this crisis into a positive force for your organization? We hope you will share your ideas with our community of non-profit practitioners.

Not only can we learn new ways to manage the challenges ahead, but we will realize that we are not alone in navigating these tumultuous waters. With a collection of effective and innovative tactics at our fingertips we can move forward as a stronger and wiser fleet!

Boat photo: courtesy Patricia Dekker