Turn Outward in Tough Times

Last week I was in San Diego with public broadcasters who were asked what they would do if they had to cut their budgets by 15-40%. Unfortunately, such a question is no longer academic for many groups and organizations. Hard times are here, and notwithstanding promises of "change," a quick economic rebound isn't likely. But so many times when we face crises and choices, our instinct is to look inward for answers. My advice: turn outward first. There's a great deal of talk among foundations, at national conferences, and in many publications about the tough times we face. For many groups, money is tight. I suspect very few groups will be immune from the current economic downturn. Budgets are being slashed, staffs cut, programs gutted.

Experience tells me that when most of us feel under intense pressure, we turn to some trusted tools. Many organizations undertake new strategic planning, rebrand themselves, and figure out ways to generate more membership dues while trimming services. In taking such steps the impulse is to look within the organization to save ourselves, our work, and reassemble our efforts.

Recently, I spent the day with some organizational leaders facing their own challenge of shrinking resources. Over a three hour period the conversation was focused entirely inward. When I got up to speak I made the following observation: while their mission is to serve communities, barely anyone had talked about their relationship to community. Instead, the conversation focused on how to incrementally cut budgets, or conversely how to slash operations.

Indeed, the conversations revolved around how the organization could save itself. The essence of holding a public mission was lost in the desire to survive. Some people tell me that trying to maintain their public mission at this time is difficult. It is not that they want to do away with it, but they cannot see how to keep it robust.

My response is simple and straightforward. It is in these times that you must turn outward toward your community. The task is not to engage in marketing research, though that might be helpful, but to gain clarity on the following points:

* What are the real needs and aspirations of people in your community -- and how do they relate to your organization's mission; *  What are the essential priorities for your work -- so that your efforts are relevant and significant within the community; *  What does impact mean -- so that you are focused only on those areas where you are making a genuine contribution; *  What assets do you have to put up against this work -- and what other assets exist somewhere in the community?

Without having clear answers to such questions, how could we possibly know where to focus and what shape our organizations should take? How could we know what to cut, where to refocus, which staff we most need? How could we do yet another strategic planning exercise; what inputs would we use? Would rebranding ourselves, again, matter?

When each of us steps forward to engage in the work we do, we make a basic (usually implicit) choice about the direction we face. Most of the time, we face inward toward ourselves, our colleagues, our organizations. I'm suggesting we assume a different posture, one that has us turn outward toward our communities. By looking outward we discover what we need to know to make the tough choices we face, and find paths for change.

We are coming off an election in which hope and change were the watchwords. Part of that change will come from the work that you and many others are doing to make a difference in our society. Even with all the excitement about change, I know this period of economic downturn will be hard for many of you, and I hope that you find the resources, insights, and colleagues you need to move ahead in your work and efforts. You're fighting the good fight: now, let's turn outward.