January 12, 2017

4 Steps for Building Nonprofit Resilience in the Trump Era

In boardrooms and nonprofit offices around the country, leaders have worried long and hard about the results of the 2016 election and what a Trump administration will mean to their organizations and our society. I’ve been in some of those meetings as both a consultant and a board member, and the conversations are difficult because:

  • We have no real idea what President-elect Trump’s attitude toward nonprofits is from a policy standpoint. His own deeply flawed philanthropy adds to the worries.
  • Mr. Trump’s open intolerance for the kind of people we proudly serve is disturbing, but its impact is hard to gauge.

It’s important to note here where I stand: I did everything in my power to ensure a result different from the one we awoke to the morning after Election Day. The language Mr. Trump used in the campaign, the groups he attacked, and the allies he proudly brought to his side all suggest we face profound challenges.

Yet nonprofits generally aren’t set up for rapid reaction and instant opposition. A presidential term is less than the run of a typical nonprofit strategic plan, a year longer than a typical board term, and shorter than the tenure of most trustees.

From my perspective, the key to nonprofit action is to build resilience — our collective ability to adapt and plan and collaborate over the next year — instead of reacting in the short term.

This is not a new idea. Since the financial crash of 2008, nonprofits have increasingly sought to integrate resilience into their strategic and financial planning, realizing through hard experience that year-to-year fundraising and decision making too often left them open to sudden economic turmoil. That realization came as the idea of resilience was slowly gaining steam: for instance, in encouraging personal resilience among people who depend on social services and in creating greater resilience to deal with the effects of natural and human disasters.

Building resilience takes time, but here are four steps you can take right now:

Review your case for support and action.

We all rely on case statements to form the bedrock of our message for activism, marketing, and fundraising. It’s the language that describes our work, our goals, and our impact. But is that language calibrated for an American society that’s now facing the threat of upheaval greater than at any time since the depths of the Great Depression? In most cases, I’d say no.

Smart nonprofit leaders will review their case statements early in 2017 and make sure that they accurately reflect not only the organization’s programs and goals but the changing atmosphere. Why? Because many grant makers may be poised to increase their commitments to groups working to protect civil liberties or the most vulnerable and marginalized people.

Your case should reflect the ­real-world recognition that the times are changing and that civil society feels the threat. That doesn’t mean you need to adopt an alarmist tone; but urgency is required. Grant makers (Republicans and Democrats alike) will understand that you’re aware of the changing landscape and prepared to deal with those changes.

Revisit your strategic plan.

Strong nonprofit strategic plans rely on measures that show whether your approach to change is making progress. They don’t live on dusty shelves as the nifty product of a smart consultant but on the working agendas of senior staff and board-committee meetings throughout the year. Good strategic planning yields more organizational resilience because it’s inherently flexible and allows senior leaders to pursue large-scale goals and impact while adjusting for challenges and opportunities.

This is a time to review that plan (or if you’re in the midst of a planning cycle, adjust for a changing world order). Are the underlying assumptions still correct? Is the budget reasonable? Are your priorities the right ones? Does your approach to change hold up in a civil society under extreme stress from a radical administration? What about your state or city — or the regions where you do the most work: What does the local landscape look like? This may take a little time and tax your senior leadership, but it’s worth it. And don’t rush to find immediate "answers," either: Sometimes it’s more important to prop open a door to considering all the possibilities.

Hold leadership discussions.

Speaking of leadership, these are times to convene often and discuss everything. The best meetings I’ve attended since the election don’t hide behind vagaries and euphemisms; strong leaders (both executives and board members) are explicit about what worries them and where they believe the challenges and opportunities lie. In some ways, the Trump presidency and its potential threats to civil liberty and our system of government can help a canny nonprofit leader draw her leadership closer together.

Don’t ignore social occasions, either; consider adding more of them to the calendar. I’ve found that people want to talk about these challenges.

Many trustees and staff members are worried about interacting in these settings if there’s a split between those who opposed Mr. Trump and those who didn’t. Don’t make it personal or cultural; there’s no need to lose them. In truth, I’ve already seen a few awkward situations close up. Transparency and honesty help a lot. Lay out in explicit terms based on specific policy and public statements why you are worried and how the incoming administration may threaten your organization’s work. And take the time to find opportunities for bipartisan advancement, if it exists.

Renew partnerships.

Real resilience relies increasingly on multiple players, coalitions, and even large-scale networks — and it’s impossible to make a real impact without them. This is a time to strengthen our partnerships with major donors, with other nonprofits, with government, and with corporate supporters. In truth, we should all spend more resources on this anyway because the world we work in is so interconnected that very few nonprofits can achieve much as programmatic islands. But the perceived crisis in civil society demands more attention and more fruitful connections. The human element is in this important as well: Your own personal resilience as a nonprofit leader can only increase by sharing your anxiety and working shoulder to shoulder with caring allies.

These are dangerous and changing times for nonprofits. Yet most organizations are not on the front lines of immediate policy resistance like the ACLU or as immediately and publicly threatened as Planned Parenthood. With calm and deliberate planning, and open and candid communities, nonprofits working on every cause can become more resilient and weather the storm that’s coming.

Tom Watson is president of CauseWired, a consulting firm that advises nonprofits. He is a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.