Leadership in Tough Times (CNM Seminar)

Looking Ahead: Leadership Strategies for TurbulentTimes

Camille SchenkkanOn Tuesday, December 9th, the Center for Nonprofit Management hosted a seminar titled Looking Ahead: Leadership Strategies for Turbulent Times. I attended the event, which featured two expert panels (Government/For-Profit Representatives and Non-Profit Representatives) followed by round-robin breakout sessions. This excellent seminar offered compelling strategies for organizations looking forward to a tough year. The seminar was offered free of charge to Los Angeles County Arts Commission OGP grantees and Department of Cultural Affairs Los Angeles applicants. Unfortunately, the nonprofit arts sector was not represented on either panel; however, many of the recommendations can be applied to all nonprofits. The panelists also agreed that advocacy on an individual and organizational level is especially important during a year of budget fluctuations for government, foundations & corporations. I've summarized the panelist' salient points. If you attended the seminar as a panelist, table leader or participant and would like to add to this breakdown, please email your thoughts to me at camille@artsforla.org or leave a comment below.


Overview: Several themes recurredthroughout both panels and the breakout sessions. The seminar's key recommendations were:

  • Create partnerships and collaborations within the nonprofit sector. Not only will partnerships be looked upon favorably by corporate and government funders, they're also a good way to share resources, eliminate duplicative programming in the nonprofit sector and tap into larger networks for resources.
  • Communicate honestly at the board, staff and constituent level. Everyone knows we're in a recession. Staff & board must communicate their needs and develop strategies that are accepted and pursued by the entire organization. Leadership needs to fight the urge to hold negative information "close to the vest" to ensure the organization is well-informed and enable people working on the front lines to make informed decisions. Ask your constituents for help in an honest and rational manner.
  • This is a great time for experimentation and radical change. Almost every panelist indicated that budget shortfalls can inspire major organizational renovations, such as cutting programming not essential to the mission, re-defining staff structure or joining with a similar organization.
  • Engaging your board is essential. Your board provides powerful linkage to resources. They're natural advocates and the "moral owners" of your organization (as well as having fiscal oversight and responsibility). They must provide guidance & leadership to the staff, who are responsible for communicating the organization's day-to-day struggles to their board.


Panel 1: Government & For-Profit


Robin Kramer,Chief of Staff, Los Angeles Mayor's Office:

  • The City's revenues are extremely sensitive to the economic climate.
  • We in the nonprofit sector are and must remain purveyors of hope.
  • When faced with a crisis, it's best to err on the side of inclusion: include everyone in the discussion, especially all staff and board members.
  • Practice appreciative inquiry: Ask staff/board/stakeholders about similarly tough times in the company's history. Find out what strategies were employed at that time. What can we learn from our organizational history?
  • This is a good time to redefine or experiment. The mayor is fond of saying "never waste a crisis."

  • The mayor needs to hear from our sector regarding the concrete results of human infrastructure. He needs to know why it's important to support the nonprofit sector and what our sector achieves that will help Los Angeles through this recession. We are welcome to send these thoughts to Robin Kramer.
  • Collaboration among nonprofits can be a work of beauty and importance and will be recognized as such by funders.

Miguel Santana, Deputy CEO, County of Los Angeles:

  • If it were left to itself, the County would be fine during the next few years. However, statewide budget cuts are impacting county finances.
  • The County looks favorably on streamlined services and one-stop shopping for the nonprofit sector. Santana cited a project that will be like a small mall for at-risk families, where they can apply for social services, get advice on health insurance and mental health and learn about family services.
  • There are serious redundancies and duplication in the nonprofit sector. If it's possible to think about sharing services (such as office space, graphic design or printing) with another nonprofit or divvying up similar services between two similar nonprofits, this will be admired by potential funders who are busy streamlining & eliminating their own redundant programming.


Vera de Vera, Director of Grants, California CommunityFoundation:

  • Now is the time for board development. Your board must be supporting the staff during this difficult time.

  • CalFund has extended its deadline until the end of the month (December 31st) to better serve the needs of nonprofits during this difficult time.


Jonathan Weedman, Regional Vice President, Wells FargoFoundation:

  • The Wells Fargo Foundation hopes to keep current grantees at a "flat or below" level: ideally, giving will not decrease, but it might have to amid company-wide budget cuts.
  • Their foundation will also look favorably upon mergers and collaborations in the nonprofit sector. This mirrors the changes being made in the for-profit sector to deal with the economy.


Antonio Manning, First Vice President & Regional Managerfor Community & External Affairs, WaMu now JPMorgan Chase:

  • WaMu's California budget took a cut of 70%. They are now forced to be much stricter about their funding priorities.
  • Reciprocity has become much more important. They are now looking at which applicants have WaMu/JP Morgan accounts.
  • Manning recommends Bridgespan's Managing Through Tough Times: 7 Steps.


David Porges, Regional Leader for Corporate & CommunityResponsibility, Deloitte Services LP:

  • Deloitte is in a relationship business and they see corporate contributions as important aspects of their relationships to clients.
  • Deloitte is starting a Pro Bono program for nonprofits. Still in its infancy, this program would allow nonprofits leaders to have a half-day seminar/consultation with business professionals normally paid $400/hour for their services.

General Question forthe Panelists: What can we learn from the Non-Profit Sector?


  • Analyze your expenses and project your income. Go line-by-line and assess every expense, just as many of us are doing for our home finances, and discover what you can cut out.
  • Hug your donors. They want to see you succeed and you need to reinforce that their contributions make a difference.
  • Cut to your critical core (mission-driven) services.
  • Do not get caught up in the arrogance of Founder's Syndrome. This recession is bigger than you and bigger than your organization. How are you going to make the best decision for the future of the organization?
  • Book Recommendation: Peter Drucker's The Five Most Important Questions
  • Examine your elevator pitch: What are we doing and how do we plan for it? Exactly what (quantified) do we need to get where we want to go in one year, three years, ten years?
  • Don't waste a crisis. How do we mobilize around this? Is this the opportunity to make a change?


Panel 2: Non-Profit Leaders


Dr. Jon Sager, Clinical Associate Professor, USC:

  • How do you create a flexible organization that can change with the times? Ask how decisions are made and how power is shared. It's best to have a lateral hierarchy, and people working on the front lines must have the power to act.
  • How does your organization divide labor? The trend is going toward generalists: people who know many aspects of the organization and can do a slightly different task every day.
  • "Luck is the residue of desire." If you work hard enough and with a certain goal in mind, you create your own luck.


Alex Morales, L.C.S.W., President & CEO, Children'sBureau

  • Now is the time to take personal action as leaders. Ask yourself, what's my wildest dream for my personal contribution to my organization? Nothing is impossible. Now is the time to try new strategies.


Scott Cargle, Nonprofit Fundraising Consultant:

  • Cargle ran a theatre in NYC in 2001. After September 11th, giving went up--the tragedy was a financial blessing for NYC nonprofits. It was only after Katrina hit in 2003 that that "sympathy funding" went away and the nonprofits finally felt the impact of 9/11. Cargle & others started a consortium of similar nonprofits to share resources, such as office space and the cost of a grantwriter.


Judy Spiegel, Consulting for a Change:

  • Great leaders cannot know everything. They need to reach out to staff and board and be open about what's going on to be most effective. Multidisciplinary teams are especially effective when you're doing creative problem-solving. Ask yourself, is the way we work working?
  • Leadership has a tendency to hold information close to the vest so no one else gets scared or burdened. This is very unhealthy for an organization. Leadership must communicate information--good and bad--to prevent confusion and ensure that everyone is working toward the same goals.


General Question forthe Panelists (Asked by Arts for LA): How does advocacy on an individual and organizational level playinto the current state of the economy?


Answered by Regina Birdsell: When she worked for the Governor,their office was always very clear on what the Business sector wanted becausethey laid out their goals and asked for what they needed from Government. However, the Governor's office never knewwhat consumers really wanted because there was no direct link. This is why business interests are oftensupported by government. We must communicate our needs to ourgovernment. If we're not clear aboutwhat we want, we're not going to get it. Let's present them with our problems and hand them solutions that willnot only help the nonprofit field but the state & national economy as well.


  • Book recommendation: Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits. All of the featured nonprofits have a built-in Advocacy component.
  • You must create advocates for your organization and for the larger field. Your constituents can become your advocates if you empower them. Example: Give your entire membership the tools they need to fundraise.
  • Information-sharing is vital to creating advocates. Communicate your needs and what fulfilling those needs would look like and accomplish for your organization and the larger community. Empower your staff, board, members and constituents to spread that message to their own networks.


Information fromBreakout Session with Glen Peterson of Capacity Partnership Group:

  • You need a strong board during tough times. It's imperative to communicate and be honest with your board. Your board is a link to many different communities.
  • Define what your board needs to do. What is appropriate to ask of them? What is the difference they can make?
  • The board has moral ownership of your organization. They can be operational volunteers in addition to making policy. The board needs to clarify its own position before it can be effective.
  • Book recommendation: Boards That Make a Difference, by John Carver.
  • Your constituents know what's going on in the economy. Allow your end-of-year letter or fundraising pitch to be honest about your organization's situation and acknowledge that everyone is going through the same thing before asking for their help.
  • Meet with your "competitors" for an honest discussion. Can we combine services? What is duplicative about our missions & programs?
  • Tips for forming organizational partnerships or collaborations:

o Define the role each organization will play

o Maintain and recognize each organization'sindividual identity

o Choose non-competitive organizations that offerdifferent services, are different sizes or come from different sectors

  • Define the gap between what you have and what you want and focus on that gap. Quantify it: Would an additional $50,000 annually enable us to fulfill our mission and achieve our goals?
  • Foster deep ownership and engagement in your staff, board and constituents.

Arts for LA thanks the Center for Nonprofit Management, Regina Birdsell and all of the panelists for their wisdom and for offering such high-quality support for the nonprofit community.