Turn Outward in Tough Times
By Rich Harwood
State of the Re:Union contributor Rich Harwood of the Harwood Institute offers some sage advice for companies and organizations facing the looming threat of economic turmoil: Turn Outward to the community to find the best direction when dealing with tough times.
A while back, I was in San Diego with public broadcasters who were asked what they would do if they had to cut their budgets by 15-40%. Unfortunately, such a question is no longer academic for many groups and organizations. Hard times are here, and notwithstanding promises of “change,” a quick economic rebound remains unlikely. But so many times when we face crises and choices, our instinct is to look inward for answers. My advice is first, Turn Outward.
There’s a great deal of talk among foundations, at national conferences, and in many publications about the tough times we face. For many groups, money is tight. I suspect very few groups will be immune from the current economic downturn. Budgets are being slashed, staffs cut, programs gutted.
Experience tells me that when most of us feel under intense pressure, we turn to some trusted tools. Many organizations undertake new strategic planning, rebrand themselves, and figure out ways to generate more membership dues while trimming services. In taking such steps the impulse is to look within the organization to save ourselves, our work, and reassemble our efforts.
Recently, I spent the day with some organizational leaders facing their own challenge of shrinking resources.
Over a three hour period the conversation was focused entirely inward. When I got up to speak I made the following observation: while their mission is to serve communities, barely anyone had talked about their relationship to community. Instead, the conversation focused on how to incrementally cut budgets, or conversely, how to slash operations.
Indeed, the conversations revolved around how the organization could save itself. The essence of holding a public mission was lost in the desire to survive. Some people tell me that trying to maintain their public mission at this time is difficult. It is not that they want to do away with it, but they cannot see how to keep it robust.
My response is simple and straightforward. It is in these times that you must turn outward toward your community. The task is not to engage in marketing research, though that might be helpful, but to gain clarity on the following points:
• What are the real needs and aspirations of people in your community — and how do they relate to your organization’s mission?
• What are the essential priorities for your work — so that your efforts are relevant and significant within the community?
• What does impact mean — so that you are focused only on those areas where you are making a genuine contribution?
• What assets do you have to put up against this work — and what other assets exist somewhere in the community?
Without having clear answers to such questions, how could we possibly know where to focus and what shape our organizations should take? How could we know what to cut, where to refocus, which staff we most need? How could we do yet another strategic planning exercise; what inputs would we use? Would rebranding ourselves, again, matter?
When each of us steps forward to engage in the work we do, we make a basic (usually implicit) choice about the direction we face. Most of the time, we face inward toward ourselves, our colleagues, our organizations. I’m suggesting we assume a different posture, one that has us turn outward toward our communities. By looking outward we discover what we need to know to make the tough choices we face, and find paths for change.
We are riding the wake of the last presidential election in which hope and change were the watchwords. Part of that change will come from the work that you and many others are doing to make a difference in our society. I know this period of economic downturn continues to be hard for many of you, and I hope that you find the resources, insights, and colleagues you need to move ahead in your work and efforts. You’re fighting the good fight: now, let’s Turn Outward.
With the exception of very few, most of us are still feeling the dizzying effects made by the roller coaster economy that seems to stay below a point of financial safety. It is quite easy and understandable to despair, but SOTRU knows that there is a plethora of community-minded optimists out there. We want to hear how you have “turned outward” and interacted with community to keep fighting the good fight.
A dynamic public speaker, Rich Harwood is a frequent keynote for foundations and national organizations. He is an expert contributor on national and syndicated media outlets including MSNBC, NPR, The Christian Science Monitor, CNN’s Inside Politics, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Special Report with Brit Hume, C-SPAN, and many others. He is also the author of Hope Unraveled: The people\’92s retreat and our way back (2005), Make Hope Real: How we can accelerate change for the public good (2008) and numerous studies, articles and essays chronicling vital issues of our time. His most recent written work, Why We\’92re Here: The Powerful Impact of Public Broadcasters When They Turn Outward, is being published and distributed in Spring 2011. You can follow him on twitter @RichHarwood and facebook.com/richharwood.
You can read Rich’s posts every Tuesday on State of the Re:Union’s website.