The Case of Coping During Difficult Financial Times

This is the third Sam Sector III case. If you check on a regular basis you can follow the escapades of Sam “the greatest and only nonprofit detective in the world” as he answers the questions facing today’s nonprofit leaders. Each installment will take only a couple of minutes to read, will provide you with some information, and will end in a bit of a cliff-hanger so that you will return in about 7-10 days to find out what happened. This of course is fun for me, and a different way to get information out to all of you who have an interest. Please let me know if you like it, hate it, or wish that Sam would find a real job that pays.


The Case of Coping During Difficult Financial Times

A Sam Sector III Saga

As told by Emil W. Angelica

Sam looked out the office window through the gold letters that spelled Sam Sector III, Nonprofit Detective and, feet up on the corner of his battered wooden desk, mulled over the Twins’ latest loss to the White Sox. Stella, his loyal secretary, waltzed into his office and placed a takeout container of black steaming coffee in the center of his stained blotter. She smacked her ever-present double wad of licorice-flavored gum. “Have you responded to that call from Joe in DC yet?” Stella never missed a chance to get Sam engaged with a paying client; it meant that she might get an irregular paycheck next month. Sam slid the bottom drawer of his desk open, removed a pint bottle of brown liquid, and poured some into his coffee. “Thanks, Stella, I needed this pick-me-up. Yeah, I had a long discussion with Joe. Gosh, he can talk your head off. I never understood how he was so successful in politics. Anyway, he wants me to develop some ideas to help nonprofits during these difficult financial times.”

“That is great, Sam! How much do you think we’ll make on this one?” Stella cut to the chase as she emptied the papers in his wastebasket into a brown paper bag for recycling.

“Now, Stella, you know I can’t ask Joe about money right out of the chute. I have to spend some time finessing him before we get to the actual contract — he is, after all, one of our Nation’s leaders.”

“Aww, Sam, I don’t give a rat’s patootee if he controls the entire Federal budget — see if you can get a contract for a few thousand dollars! I got bills to pay, and let’s not forget, I can always take a job with the boys in blue down the street. I hear they got some stimulus dollars and are hiring — then where would you be?” Stella waited two beats and continued. “Up the proverbial creek without a paddle — that is exactly where you would be, Sam. Soooo, if that’s what you want, don’t worry about getting paid for this work, and I will be gone quicker than you can say Jackie Robinson.”

Sam squinted at Stella, popped his brown fedora on his head, took a large gulp of coffee, shook on his jacket as he stood up, and headed toward the large wooden door to the office. “OK, OK, I’m on it, Stella. Call Vinnie at the bank and get another two grand for my line of credit. Cut yourself a paycheck as soon as he gives me the additional credit — tell him I got a big’un on the line, and I’ll be able to pay the principal down in a few weeks. Then, set Gert up for tomorrow’s lunch with me at the Shack, she loves the food there. I’m goin’ to the Twins’ afternoon game today with Johnnie and Harry — he closed the Dew Drop Inn for the afternoon. I hope that Blackburn has a good game against the Sox. If the sinker is working, Punto should have a busy afternoon at short. Johnnie, Harry and I are gonna talk through the project at the game.” Stella rolled her eyes, smacked the side of her Mac SE to improve the contrast on the screen, and started to work on a contract form.

An hour later the three friends sat in the cheap seats in right field with a Chicago Dog in one hand and a beer in the other, and watched Morneau put on a batting practice show. As Sam crunched on the hot peppers, fluorescent green relish and kraut, Johnnie, the young upstart consultant from Nordeast, washed down a mouthful and lectured. “Ya know, my best advice to nonprofits is to do like the Twins do when they are on a losing streak. Go back to the basics! After all that’s what got ‘em here. Throw the ball over the plate and trust your defense, catch the ball when it is hit, and be patient, swing at good pitches, and hit the ball where they throw it. You know that I’m right.”

Harry, the retired Executive Director turned bar owner, nodded his head. “That means nonprofit leaders need to go back to their missions, it’s why they exist, look hard at their core programs to see if they still make sense today, and think through their core programs for the future — are there some new programs that will replace some of their current core programs? And, just like the Twins, they will want to position the team so that they can be successful once they get through the current tough times. For example, this is not a time to panic and trade away your future pitching prospects for an aging homerun hitter just to win a few games now. Otherwise you might win a few now but have guaranteed failure in the future. They need to make changes now very carefully — with an eye on the big picture and a plan that keeps them successful in the future once the crisis is over.”

Sam took another bite of his dog and, nodding, chewed and talked at the same time. “But as the old saying goes, you don’t want to waste a good crisis. This might be the best time to act boldly and make changes that would not otherwise be tolerated by the Board and staff. You know what I mean, a chance to improve operations to gain some efficiencies, get rid of a too-well-loved program that has outlived its usefulness, or change the program model to improve effectiveness.” As they talked, the friends watched several of the new players that the Twins just brought up from triple A run around the field, adding speed, energy and efficiencies, yet playing the game the way the Twins have traditionally done. At the same time, Sam pointed to Crede, the new third baseman who could hit with power. “This is the first time that they’ve added some power at third in a long time. They changed their model of good field and no hit at the hot corner. They used the off- season as an opportunity to improve themselves with a new model. This is what nonprofits need to think through. Are the service models the best ones to achieve the outcomes for their customers and clients?”

Harry, who was the first one to finish his Chicago Dog, jumped in while the other two chewed. “Yeah, nonprofits need to act boldly to distinguish themselves to their key stakeholders and funders, and they need to keep in mind three key notions during these times:

  • You need to demonstrate that you can make a difference in the world — the focus should be on outcomes related to the mission and not on activities.
  • You need to show that you are relevant in today’s world — you make sense to your constituents right now — it is not about past relevance.
  • You need to be flexible enough to make the necessary changes quickly and effectively, but at the same time, avoid change for change’s sake.

Sam nodded, swallowed some beer, and settled in to enjoy the game. As the Twins were using their new model of power at the corners and speed up the middle, Sam started to think about how he would convey this message to Joe and to nonprofit leadership. The game was a pitcher’s duel and fun to watch. By the seventh inning Sam recognized another parallel between the Twins and the crisis that nonprofits are facing today. The bullpen for the Twins has been overused, the pitchers are getting older, and the stress was starting to show. The game started to get out of hand as the Sox players teed off on several relievers. Sam began to think about nonprofits not having a succession plan for their baby boomers and not having thought through how to meet different futures with different challenges. He looked at Johnnie and Harry, who were starting to groan at the play on the field. It did not take a lot of imagination to see them as groaning nonprofit board members. Sam started to jot notes on the back of his scorecard. He needed to write down the questions to ask Gert at lunch the next day. He hoped that she had answers!

Read the second installment →

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