Non-profits In A Trump Era: Strengthening Institutional Resiliency

This is the final post in a four-part series on how liberal and progressive non-profits can overcome the challenges of the Trump era.

Very soon forward-thinking non-profits will be extremely busy dealing with political opposition on several fronts. Although we know that we are headed into one of the most difficult political climates we have ever faced, we don't yet fully know where, when, and how assaults to our values and mission will occur. So how should progressive non-profits prepare to navigate such an unpredictable and difficult era?

Certainly the stakes are high. Perhaps more than ever before, such non-profits must play a vital role in our society. Therefore, we must be poised to scale up, become visionary leaders, advocate for our causes, and form effective broad-based coalitions.

For non-profits to achieve these goals and realize their full role in society, it is essential for each organization to enhance its institutional resilience and strength. This is especially important if the Trump administration is characterized by a general hostility to progressivism and shows a tendency to retaliate against vocal critics. As an executive who has led organizations dealing with some of the most controversial issues of our time through several political and economic cycles, I know that nothing is more important than strengthening a non-profit's core capacity to face multiple challenges. My experience thus guides me to recommend the following four principles to enhance an organization's internal fortitude...

Principle #1: Ensure Financial Strength

A non-profit's resiliency is highly dependent on its financial strength. This means ensuring that an organization has multi-year balanced budget projections that are realistic in light of current conditions and that reflect an organization's programmatic and financial risks. It also means asking several critical questions: How can we support the increased expenses associated with greater external demands and threats to its mission? Can these increased expenses be met by a commensurate expansion of revenue base and/or by drawing on reserves? Do we have the capacity to invest in more fundraising and external relations to maintain the revenue generation necessary to propel growth?

When facing such political and financial uncertainty, it is crucial that each non-profit has a "financial cushion" in the form of generous reserve funds and/or an endowment to help it continue its operations even if faced with budgetary shortfalls--these are not times when essential programs should be diminished or eliminated.

Principle #2: Account for the Long Term

Although it is tempting to focus intense effort on the new administration's first 100 days or first year, the fact is that we will need to be prepared to defend our mission and vision for at least four years. Indeed, the Trump administration may well usher in measures whose detrimental impact will extend beyond its term in office. If so, non-profits must plan for a longer haul than initially expected. Even those that elect for rapid response and opposition will need to remember that all their immediate efforts are not likely to yield the results sought.

Additionally, it will be important for most non-profits to balance being reactive with a longer-term affirmative strategy. While it is natural to concentrate merely on opposing measures, such a strategy is not the best way to achieve an organization's mission. For example, while efforts should be made immediately to counter the Trump administration's goal of defunding Planned Parenthood and selecting an anti-choice Supreme Court justice, a longer-term affirmative plan will also need to be deployed to combat recurring anti-choice actions. For those in the pro-choice and women's rights space this involves framing issues in the broader context of women's equality and health as well as implementing coordinated lobbying, litigation, and advocacy campaigns.

Principle # 3: Create and/or Revisit Your Strategic Plan

One of the best ways to navigate a period marked by multiple political assaults is to ensure organizational focus. If leaders are not currently following a strategic plan, there is no better time than now to craft one covering the next five years. And if your non-profit does have a strategic plan, this would be a great time to revise it to reflect the daunting political outlook. Some crucial questions to consider: Are key assumptions of your plan still valid? Are you developing a new or revised plan that draws upon your unique strengths? What interim and long-term goals have been set? Is the budget realistic? Do you have the team and leadership necessary to deliver on this plan?

Principle #4: Maintain and Attract Top-flight Talent

An organization's most important asset is its people, particularly its team and leadership. As non-profits prepare for a challenging period, it is crucial that their people are being both recognized for their work and groomed for leadership. Avoid burning out your team, including your executives, by being focused and following policies and practices designed to attract, motivate, and retain talented employees. It is equally important that board members remain engaged with the organization, and contribute their time, resources, and network effectively.

It can't be overstated: progressive and liberal non-profits are facing dangerous times. We should prepare to confront the Trump era with effective externally-driven strategies as well as by strengthening our organizations internally. After all, our collective future depends on a powerful and vibrant non-profit sector that promotes a just and open society.