Timing denial

Theo Jansen, artist and creator of Strandbeesten explained in a TV-documentary about his work that in his creative flow every problem that presents itself immediately comes with the dream to solve it.  I so admire optimists!

Seeing in a crisis the opportunity as the famous saying goes requires you – at least temporarily – ignore the pain of failure and problems, and be a dreamer. But what if the problems are existential? Existential as in exit.

“Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.” – Tom StoppardRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Exits, transformations and radical cut-backs in not for profit organizations are profoundly painful processes for all those who are affected. Yet some degree of denial of the pain may allow you to see the opportunities. But productive denial requires good timing. In the world of funders and not-for-profits I also see a lot of denial of organisational pains that allows crucial problems to fester and lead to crises. So how do you time your denial well?

Over the next months I expect to be immersed in issues faced by not-for-profits from which funders exit.  None of the NGO’s involved has been part of a formally planned exit by a funder(s). Questions like: How long do you keep on trying? What did we miss, should we have seen this coming? What about the future of the paid staff and (unpaid) volunteers? Do we scale back? Liquidate?  Go dormant?

Funders of not-for profits have serious problems with exits, planned entrance in a country or field on the basis of an entrance and an exit strategy. I wrote about exits for funders in a GrantCraft publication.  Emulating venture capital practices, the venture philanthropist are very keen on preparing for exits and sustainability and EVPA also collected lessons learned and provided guidance to their members through and EVPA guide on planning and executing an exit.  Many funders circumvent the exit problem by suggesting from their side there is not real entrance: they provide funding on a project by project basis and do not really strategize about the field or sustainability of the continuity of the capacities and organizations that implement the projects they support.  It is an opportunistic approach, but unless a complete field collapses none of the crises that exits cause will affect them.

But awareness and commitment does not provide guarantees. What if NGO’s and their funders both underestimate or even deny the financial fragility of the causes and organizations they support. Problems of financial fragility are rarely a crisis that hits out of the blue. The problems tend to creep-in very slowly: how to manage growing budgets changes into making ends meet, into chronic deficits. After a bad year, if there is a financial reserves, extensive discussions about their use to stop-gap ensue. And a lot of effort and dedicated capacity will be invested in gettin fundraising back on track, but do you revisit your fundamental strategy?  Or do you delay that discussion until the next year. Will doubt vis a vis the fundamentals undermine the effort to get back on track?

Ironically, denial of structural problems can also be fed by unexpected large gifts that hide more strategic issues.  And another factor that allows for financial fragility to remain unaddressed is the urgency of the cause as it stimulates a focus on fixing things instead of managing with a long term perspective.

So how do you manage to balance optimism and realism? The guides for funders referred above encourage funders and charities to work together and face financial sustainability at every stage of their relationship. But equally important is  how the management and board members of NGO’s can support each other to face this issues at the right moment and see the opportunities, the new spaces opened by the exit doors.

New Year-looking back and looking ahead

Another year gone by. Last year I made little time for blogging. My standard excuse: too busy with my work for clients or with my volunteer work. That explanation suggests that one excludes the other, which may not be the case. The synthesis of working and sharing is called Working Out Loud (WOL). As defined by John Stepper WOL is “making your work visible in such a way that it might help others….. when you work in a more open, connected way – you can build a purposeful network that makes you more effective and provides access to more opportunities.”

It has been buzzing around WOL on internet for some time now, so I have some catching-up to do. The  basics I learned from this blog by Sahana Chattopadhyay and you will find some practical, critical thoughts on the subject by Nigel Young.

Particularly Young’s first point is relevant: “WOL is about working in a visible space not preparing and presenting in that space”.  Unfortunately not all the work I do for clients can be be done in a shared, let alone public space. So how do you manage that? Can you do part of your work out loud and be quiet about other parts?  Would that still be WOL? Anyway, I am going to try an find out this year how I can WOL and be discrete, protecting the interests of the organisations I support.

But even if I end up working really quietly in 2016,  I will steal ideas from the WOL-community. For example, I will follow in the footsteps of the “writer who draws” and makes “art with words and books with pictures”,  Austin Kleon  and be creative and Steal like an Artist (thank you Russell Kerkhoven)

Stealing, sharing and amplifying or endorsing: often my own experiences are not at all unique, and others formulate much more eloquently the issues I come across in my own work. A good example is a blog on non-profits by Vu LE I started followng in 2015. Check out this one for example on  lessons learned in 2015.  I particularly like the one about the danger of ignoring the elephant in the room:

An elephant in the room is most destructive when it is ignored. Every organization has an elephant. Or an 800-pound gorilla. Or whatever large animal is representative of a problem that everyone knows exists but no one wants to wrestle with. Deal with it head-on, because ignoring it usually makes it worse.

Next year I hope to become better at dealing with elephants large and small. Will keep you posted!