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When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Raise Money

By Susan Carey Dempsey on December 3, 2010No Comment

Review of At The Crossroads: Not-for Profit Leadership Strategies for Executives and Boards, by Philip Coltoff (Wiley)

Okay, so times are tough,  but that’s hardly an excuse for stepping back from the difficult work of fundraising  – or the other challenging roles of nonprofit CEOs and board members. That’s the blunt message delivered by Philip Coltoff in his new book: don’t hide behind the recession, but step up to do battle for your cause

In writing “At the Crossroads,” Coltoff shares with leaders in the nonprofit sector his unique perspective, crystallized over twenty-five years leading New York City’s Children’s Aid Society. He discusses the forces that are converging on the sector, as the weakened economy takes a toll on jobs, on charitable donations, on endowments and on government budgets. Social service agencies, as he knows best, are especially strained in such downturns, because the demands for their services spike as their resources shrink.

While certainly being sympathetic to the plight of nonprofit executives, Coltoff chooses to use this moment to challenge them to adopt strategies for success. He says bluntly, too, that the downturn can’t be used as an excuse for failing to pursue donations. Speaking with onPhilanthropy recently, he explained that executives and boards who believe in their “product” will ardently pursue support, and points to the fact that some nonprofits are even thriving in this economy. Neither the recession nor unexpected natural disasters, he maintains, should mitigate the efforts of CEOs and boards to find the resources they need:

There is some degree of “giving fatigue” with the exporting of charitable giving, for example in response to the disasters in Haiti, Singapore, Indonesia.  But that backdrop, while real, shouldn’t be used as cover. Yet, some organizations are doing better – the Red Cross doesn’t know what to do with the reserve funds it has. And look at Harlem Children’s Zone – it’s doing considerably better than it was in good times.  Agriculture and nutrition issues are getting more funds than they’re asking for – why?

Coltoff focuses less on reports of declines in giving than on the individuals and family foundations who continue to give, and seek to become more involved in organizations that align with their priorities. Nonprofit leaders, he says, need to take a look at their programs and be sure they are effectively communicating what they do, using the best tools and practices available:

The money is there. It is harder but if we don’t reassess, and simply stay where we are, we’re not going to capture it. We’re not seriously looking at the product we’re offering. There are new and better approaches to branding and marketing.

He asserted that many organizations failed to adapt to changing needs, clinging to outdated mission statements:

The mission  can become a  straitjacket –it  allows us to say “that is not our area.” Instead, nonprofits need to stay current, look at things differently. If you don’t try some new approach, you’ll be stuck on the dime.

In our interview, Coltoff was blunt in citing the expectations that must be met by board members, who all too often shrink from the role of fundraising:

A lot is due to a limited understanding on the part of board members about their obligations, legal and otherwise. Many continue to hold on to their ancestors’ role on boards, hoping to avoid the difficult task of asking their peers to support their cause .

They’ll say, ‘I don’t want to ask  Jack, because then he’ll ask me.’ Well, then, you don’t believe in the product. You are the one who has to work out the quid pro quo with Jack. The CEO has to take responsibility for educating the board. You can’t live in avoidance;  if you stay under the radar, where you think it’s safest, that’s only temporary.

In addition to sharing his own experiences, Coltoff draws liberally on respected experts on management and leadership, such as Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and the Social Sectors, and Crutchfield and Grant, who wrote Forces for Good.

There’s no excuse for passing up the opportunity to learn from this concise volume, with its articulate series of recommendations. He covers the areas of personnel, organizational culture, advocacy, branding, mission, technology and more, all in 173 pages. At the end of each chapter, a summary of major points and recommendations gives the busy CEO or board member more than enough food for thought, and for leading their nonprofit from the crossroads onto the road to success.

At The Crossroads: Not-for- Profit Leadership Strategies for Executives and Boards, by Philip Coltoff (Wiley, 2010)

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