Nonprofits must develop plans for new administration

Posted Nov. 18, 2010, at 7:16 p.m.

As a new administration and legislative leadership prepare to go to work in Augusta, they need to pay attention to recent survey results indicating that seven in 10 Americans trust nonprofit organizations more than they trust the government or businesses to solve society’s problems (The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Nov. 3). Couple this high level of trust with the reality that one out of seven Maine workers is employed by a nonprofit, according to the Maine Association of Nonprofits, and it only makes sense that nonprofit leaders should be at the table as state policies and strategies are developed.

The nonprofit community is understandably apprehensive, however. Experience suggests that departmental budget cuts and efforts to shrink government inevitably shift the burden to the nonprofit community — a burden that would be easier to bear if it were accompanied by a corresponding increase in resources (which it rarely is).

Nonprofit leaders and their boards will need to help our Legislature and governor understand the increasingly vital role nonprofits play in our communities. The new regime should recognize nonprofits as valuable partners that can leverage government support to solve problems and improve the quality of life at the community level.

And when they speak of being “business-friendly,” they should remember that nonprofits are businesses too — businesses that contributed $8.2 billion to the Maine economy in 2007 through wages, retail and wholesale sales as well as contracted professional services. That total amounted to 17 percent of the state’s gross product and was greater than the manufacturing and construction industries combined, according to the Maine Association of Nonprofits.

Nonprofit leaders and their boards may think it prudent to wait and see what will happen next, but that would be a terrible mistake. There is an opportunity here.

Gov.-elect Paul LePage and his administration will be looking for promising strategies and potential solutions to problems that are far more complex than they ever imagined. Nonprofits that bus clients to the State House to plea for continued funding are likely to be disappointed. It will be those nonprofits that can inspire people with their visions of what is possible, offer well-considered plans for achieving their goals and demonstrate a readiness to deliver that will stand the best chance of success.

As hard as it is to lift their heads up out of the day-to-day realities of managing a nonprofit in Maine and look to the horizon, nonprofit boards and staff leaders need to pause long enough to gain an understanding of the changing landscape, methodically consider what works and what doesn’t, and develop strategies that are responsive to the paradigm shift that has occurred. Now more than ever, nonprofits need to be receptive to potential partnerships and collaborative strategies that make sense for their constituencies.

It will be those organizations that take the time now to shape a vision for the future and develop a plan for achieving it that will be poised to thrive in the uncertain months and years ahead.

Every day, we see the tremendous impact of nonprofits in our Maine communities. They have earned our trust, and they can and should play an important role in the policies that emerge from the new administration in Augusta. It is now up to the nonprofit community and its leaders to present strategies that the new leadership can embrace.

Jeff Wahlstrom lives in Bangor and provides counsel to the nonprofit community as a managing director of Starboard Leadership Consulting, an affiliate of Rudman & Winchell.

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