Finding Relevance in Tough Times

The economic downturn has sent a shiver throughout the non-profit and civic community and among funders, too. Money is in short supply, and people are scurrying about to secure their organization's future. But where are we running to, and why? What I hear most often these days is people's belief that they must prove their worth and value to their funders, members, Congress, and others if they are to remain viable. The result is a mad dash to create new, highly targeted initiatives that will appear relevant and significant to our communities and society.

But this race to produce short-term benefits will not deepen one's relevance or significance to communities or the people who live there. Indeed, we must know that this approach is organization-centric, with the main goal of improving the organization's status and funding, but not necessarily improving the community or people's lives.

Another response to the economic crisis is for organizations to hunker down and identify cuts in programs, staff, and other operating expenses. Such steps are often necessary. But they often signal a retreat and with drawl from the very communities that are our very source of support and sustenance. Instead, the focus is the organization again; and in this way, we can become victims of an ever-intensifying obsession with internal matters.

Recently, together with the Kettering Foundation, we released a report called The Organization-First Approach which details the prevalence and danger of inward efforts. Such steps may seem familiar, even prudent, but inwardness will never produce community relevance and significance; we need to look outward for that. Thus, we must take a different path out of the current crisis:

1. Start with the community first. Mark Leonard, General Manager of WILL, the public radio and television station in Urbana/Champaign, said after going through our Community Engagement Initiative (in partnership with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) that all their efforts now "Start in the community, not in our conference room." The challenge for all of us is to know our own community context and the implications for what you do. This is not about surveys, focus groups, marketing, or similar techniques; rather, it is about developing a deep understanding of people's fears, concerns, hopes and aspirations. You must know these to know how to address them; and you must address them or risk irrelevancy.

2. Focus on community, not institutional impact. If you want your efforts to be significant, then you must focus on community impact, not simply the impact on your organization or institution. Too many efforts are undertaken with the organization in mind, and with the community merely serving as a playing field to reach our organizational goals. But this is backwards. The community itself should be the focus of our efforts; only then can our organizational mission be truly achieved.

3. Change how business is done. When things are topsy-turvy is the best possible time to strike new relationships and forge more productive norms for how public business is done. Simply pushing your own programs may create short-term notoriety for your organization, but such efforts won't change the underlying conditions you and others face. It is these underlying conditions that must change if we are to have a fighting chance at creating long-term hope and change. Now is precisely the time to address, and change, these underlying conditions.

4. Don't wait, act now. This is a time to step forward and take action. But you must be crystal clear about your mission and return to your core values. If you want to be visible to others, if you want to be seen as being relevant and significant, then put a stake in the ground on what matters most. Know what your real contribution is.

Over and again I encounter good people who are running faster and faster to find the short-term fix to their relevance challenge. But these individuals and organizations will not find success, only more churn, activity, and inwardness. It is those who step up and turn outward who will be the real winners. They will create needed impact for their communities, and they will discover along the way a renewed sense of community relevance and significance.

Hard times demand that we turn outward. Simply running faster won't get us there.