Keep Calm and Carry On (With Your Mission)

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In the face of a rapidly changing policy environment that appears to sometimes question the values most philanthropists espouse (you know, things like justice, compassion, and honesty), it’s understandable if funders feel panicked, deflated, enraged, or all three simultaneously. Those are the emotions that many of my clients, from a full spectrum of political leanings, are sharing as they call me for advice on how to respond to the dramatic changes that are taking place our country. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, when everything seems to be in a state of upheaval (whether it’s federal policy or your own institutional politics) it pays to stop, take a deep breath, and stay focused on your mission. Here are 10 points to help you do just that:

1) Don’t act as if the sky is falling. Panic will not allow you to make effective decisions. Remember that our political system is strong and has the ability to withstand many challenges. Personally, I stave off panic by remembering my early 20s, when I lived by myself in San Francisco. There were times where I would almost hyperventilate worrying about how I would pay my bills. When this happened, I would sit in my tiny apartment and remind myself that I was perfectly safe, there were four walls around me plus a roof, I had food in the fridge, and I had family and friends I could call if it ever really got bad. It calmed me down so that I could focus on things that would help me, like beefing up my resume and asking for referrals to a better paying job. These days, I worry more about what might happen to others, but the lesson holds true: panic won’t help anyone.

2) Don’t respond with dramatic, knee-jerk changes to goals. Don’t allow yourself to fall captive to the torrent of executive orders and policy changes that leaves heads spinning. If you want to respond through grantmaking, consider allocating a portion of your portfolio (or staff time, or other resources) to more responsive activities, and double down on the investments that you know will ultimately deliver positive, lasting change.

3) Increase communication. Make this a two-way street by asking for as many perspectives as you can. Find out what grantees are experiencing. Engage board members in conversations about the impact of new policies (from the government or from within your own board room) on the work you’re doing. Ask your staff to share their feelings. but don’t allow them to dwell on the negative. Contact your local, state and federal elected officials to remind them that you’re there to help and can deliver value. In every conversation, don’t dwell on the negative. Instead focus on the changes you can make together to deliver on your mission no matter what.

4) Avoid blaming and polarizing. People working in our foundations, serving on our boards, working with our grantee organizations, and living in our communities voted either begrudgingly or enthusiastically for each of the presidential candidates. We need to come together and understand differing opinions as fuel for our strategic, lasting impact.

5) Focus on equity. Equity is defined by PolicyLink as the “just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential.” When it comes right down to it, equity is at the heart of almost any issue we tackle – either in terms of access, or a sense of belonging, or simply basic human rights and needs. If our world is becoming more divided, then that’s even more reason to apply an equity lens to our work now.

6) Strengthen your policy muscle. If policy advocacy is a tool in your toolbox, consider how it can advance your goals right now. If the thought of lobbying and advocacy scare you (or your board), there are myriad other ways to help inform policy decisions. Fund and share objective research. Identify problems that can be addressed at least partly by policy and bring experts together to brainstorm options for policy solutions. Help support nonprofits or government agencies as they work to implement of positive policies once they become law. (For more about policy read Policy Shouldn’t Be a Four Letter Word.)

7) Learn from one another. Remember when the Great Recession was the crisis on everyone’s mind? Funders gathered together then to share openly what was happening to their assets, what issues their grantees were facing, and how they were responding. I remember attending a Philanthropy Ohio conference at that exact time, and they created a special time (not scheduled on the agenda) for funders to share with each other. I think of that as “just-in-time helpfulness.” It not only allows us to trade ideas, but also reinforces the feeling that none of us is dealing with a crisis alone.

8) Switch to your long game. Think ahead: How will the issues you’re targeting grow or change in the next two years? Four years? Eight years? How is your community likely to be different in that same period? Most importantly, what can you do now to help prepare for those changes, and potentially mitigate or prevent negative ones before they happen? Remember, no matter what, your mission is still your mission. Short term setbacks are a fact of life, but you can’t let them derail your overall progress.

9) Streamline your operations. Even though you’re thinking ahead, it pays to be nimble in the present. That means now is the time to reduce internal bureaucracy and time sucking protocols to get money out the door faster when critical needs arise.

10) Talk to a trusted advisor. Identify a friend, a colleague, or a paid expert who can serve as a sounding board for strategic and tactical issues related to the rapidly changing environment. Better yet, identify one of each. The more people you can identify to help you, the more knowledge you can leverage to achieve your mission.

In the wake of a new and rapidly changing policy environment in our country, your mission may have become more difficult, but it’s not impossible. Keep your eyes on the prize, and keep moving forward.

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Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, has helped to transform the impact of top global philanthropies for over 18 years. In 2016 she was named one of America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers, and authored the book Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funderswhich was recently named one of “The 10 Best Corporate Social Responsibility Books.”  For more ideas, tips and tools to improve your giving, visit Putnam Consulting Group to read an article, listen to a podcast, or check out a case study.

On February 8, Kris will be leading the webinar “Getting Out of Our Own Way for Greater Impact” for EPIP. During the webinar Kris will focus on breaking through bad habits that stand between a grantmaker’s work and achieving greater impact. Registration is open.

If you need guidance on how to keep your mission in focus in the midst of dramatic change, call Kris at 800.598.2102 or reach out by email at kris@putnam-consulting.com.

“Kris led our board through a very comprehensive and thorough strategic plan refresh process that allowed us to confidently develop the next steps for our organization. It was just the right approach to amplify our impact.”

~Deborah Ellwood, CEO, CFLeads

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