Shut Down, Not Shut Off: What Can Nonprofits Learn From the Government Impasse?

We are now one week into the government shutdown. I'm relieved the U.S. passport agencies have remained open, but otherwise, the effects are starting to be felt in my office and at other nonprofits here in Seattle and around the country that receive federal grants or otherwise work closely with government offices.

An ongoing deadlock between the Republicans and Democrats will make things really difficult for the nonprofit sector, and by extension, millions of vulnerable people who need our help. The Chronicle of Philanthropy is keeping a running log of how the shutdown is impacting nonprofits; we can expect that list to multiply every day.

The silver lining is that this conflict provides an opportunity for us to take stock of our work and make sure we focus on what's important. Three things that nonprofit leaders should consider, at this time and for future reference:

  1. Don't depend solely on government funding. For that matter, never rely on any single source of funding. At Jolkona, my nonprofit organization, we have diversified our revenue sources -- allowing us to continue delivering core services during the shutdown.

  • Always be efficient. In good times, we are quick to staff up. Then, during lean times, we find it difficult to cut back. Instead, we should strive to operate well within our means at all times. While Jolkona has grown significantly since launching five years ago, much of our team remains composed of trained and trusted volunteers, and we leverage technology to automate and manage most of the day-to-day operations of
  • Actively seek and build partnerships. Strong partners allow Jolkona to maximize resources and amplify the impact of our work. We partner with nonprofits, businesses, and the government. When faced with unexpected hardships like a shutdown from one partner, nonprofits and startups can lean on their other partners for emergency funds and advice.
  • The U.S. government's fiscal problems and partisan divide run deep and cannot be corrected overnight. I hope our political leaders quickly resume working together to resolve these issues in the long run. But whether that day comes sooner or later, I encourage nonprofits to be proactive and find other partners, build more efficient teams and diversify their funding sources.

    And even when the current shutdown ends, I'm afraid we will see more of these types of disruptions in the future. I'm a big fan of staying focused on Plan A and not getting distracted along the way; it's an essential key to success for nonprofits and startups. However, when things happen beyond our control -- like the government shutting down -- it's good to have a Plan B. We owe it to all those who receive our services.

    Visit the Jolkona Blog for more information on this topic.