nonprofit juggling

Times are tough. Full stop. 

There’s something about nonprofits and crisis, right?

But right now it’s more, more, more.

It’s exhausting.

So… what to do?

I happened to listen to a ‘Tough Times, Tougher Nonprofits’ webinar with nonprofit leadership guru Joan Garry last week, and was inspired to write this article.

My first take-away, oddly, reminded me of a favorite Lovin’ Spoonful song: You didn’t have to be so nice. My brain slightly altered the sentiment.

Nonprofit Juggling Doesn’t Have to Be So Hard

[They] would have liked you anyway
If you had just looked once or twice
And gone upon your quiet way

Today [they] said the time was right to follow you
[They] knew [they’d] find you in a day or two
And it’s true

You came upon a quiet day
You simply seemed to take your place
[They] knew that it would be that way
The minute that [they] saw your face

Okay, it’s not a perfect analogy. But… it really doesn’t have to be so hard.

Your donors love you. 

Remember this. They love you. They’ve followed you.

Give them half a chance, and they’ll continue to follow you.

What you do was important yesterday, and it’s still important today. Never forget that, and never feel bad about that. 

But what about all Those Nonprofit Juggling Balls?

If you’ve got too many balls up in the air, perhaps you feel you don’t even have ‘half a chance’ to offer donors right now. 

  • Maybe you’re down to a bare bones staff, and that includes few or no development staff.
  • Maybe, worse, you’re down to a one-person “chief cook and bottle washer” situation.
  • Maybe you still have staff, but think your focus must be on programs and clients right now; you’ll get back to fundraising later. 
  • Maybe you’re just so busy pivoting to new models of communication (did anyone think Zoom?) you’ve no time left to focus on older, time-tested models (think telephone, email, mail) that will still work.

First, understand nothing comes from nothing. Prioritizing cutting expenses over raising revenues is almost always a recipe for disaster. While it may seem like a good idea in the short-term, in the long-term it will cost you. Big time. Because you can break things much more quickly than you can build them back up. And this includes donor engagement and loyalty.

Second, understand this is a marathon and not a sprint. Prioritizing long-term, proactive strategies over short-term, reactive strategies is a better recipe for an overall successful outcome – today and tomorrow.

Third, understand if you’re not juggling you’re not delivering. You’ve got to be good at nonprofit juggling if you want your organization to thrive, not just survive. Unless you’ve got an audience happy to see you simply toss a single ball up and down, over and over again, you’ll probably need to continue your nonprofit juggling act. No hunkering down, curling into a ball, hiding your head in the sand or refusing to see the elephant in the room.

Face it: this work requires nonprofit juggling.

How to Juggle Too Many Balls and Still Keep Donors

“You will always be given too many balls to juggle. The goal is to figure out which balls to drop.”

— Joan Garry, Nonprofits are Messy

The key to surviving and thriving — in times of uncertainty and, really, at all times – is keeping your most important balls in the air.

Here I’m arguing perhaps your most important task right now is keeping your donors close. This is one ball you must not drop!

Back to my Lovin’Spoonful song, all you have to do to get donors to follow you is to “take your place” and remind them why your work is important.

Even if your organization is not on the front lines engaging in current hot button topics, your donors want to assure your survival. But most won’t give to you, at least not thoughtfully and passionately, unless you engage them and ask them.

You’ve got to meet donors more than half way.

If you go silent on donors now, or ever, that’s not even being nice. That’s being transactional. That’s taking their money and running away. If you don’t communicate again until it’s time to ask for another gift, guess what happens? It makes your supporters feel bad. 

What, you say? 

You’re trying to be kind by not ‘bothering’ them when they themselves are dealing with their own uncertainties?

You’re trying to fade into the background because you’ve assumed they’ve got other priorities on their mind?

Banish that type of defeatist thinking!

If you’re going silent because…

  • you think you can’t possibly manage everything on your plate right now,
  • you think your donors can’t possibly manage everything on their plates right now, or
  • you think it’s best to just hunker down and wait for better days…

You’re making things too hard. And you’re likely being too hard on yourself as well.

Want to know how to make it easier?

Put Your Negative Attributes on the Shelf

Per Joan Garry, there are three attributes common to most nonprofit leaders. Alas, they can too often obscure your positive attributes. You know doubt have these, in spades (we’ll get to your “superpowers” in a minute), but the negative stuff is getting in the way.

Which of the following describes you?

  • “I am Type A.”
  • “I am a pleaser.”
  • “I will do whatever it takes.”

If you’ve answered “yes,” “yes,” and “yes,” I feel you.  These seem like noble traits. Who doesn’t like a ‘can do’ person?  

But, let’s get real.

These are not strategic attributes because they’re not sustainable.

They will thwart your ability to prioritize.

They will lead, inexorably, to burnout.

During times of crisis and uncertainty, they will kill your efforts.

Balls will start crashing down around you, and they won’t be the balls of your choosing.

Lead with Intention

Your job as a leader is to prioritize nonprofit juggling among all these balls.

  • If you’re Type A, you’ll beat yourself up for not accepting all the balls and letting any of them drop. In fact, you’ll beat yourself up if you’re not the best ball juggler in the world!
  • If you try to please others, you’ll be apt to accept more and more balls. Too many. And maybe the wrong ones.
  • If you try to do whatever it takes, balls will drop haphazardly. 

Focus intently on those balls (people and programs) that deserve your attention right now.

Put the other balls on the shelf to deal with in the future, whenever the time is right.

Remember this: People need your humanity and trust; you need theirs. Lead from the place that is uniquely yours. Donors care about your essence. Your humanity. Your honesty. Your commitment to taking care of your community.

You don’t have to be a hospital or fire station to be essential in this moment.

Channel Super Heroes and Super Powers

Earlier I suggested you put your negative attributes on the shelf. I also want you to take your positive super powers off the shelf and lean into them.

Joan Garry says she’s obsessed with super heroes. For good reason.

They save the world! They bring joy to people! They offer hope! They change things for the better! 

They have a noble calling.

They also share admirable attributes. Per Joan, they are:

Fierce. Passionate. Creative. Empathic. Problem solvers.

Per me, they are also:

Aspirational. Inspirational. Protectors. Champions.

You have these attributes.

Your donors have these attributes.

Success is about channeling these attributes and bringing them to bear on your nonprofit’s work.

Always, but especially today when folks need super heroes – hope, positivity and optimism – more than ever.

Leadership Model for Tough Times

Remember this:  Repairing the world takes a village. A well-equipped one. 

You can’t do it alone. You can’t do it absent sufficient resources. You can’t do everything.

To be honest, collaborative, well-resourced team leadership is a leadership model for all times. It’s just particularly important during tough stretches.

If you’re to be able to champion the initiatives that will restore balance to a world completely off its axis, you’ll need champions too. Active ones.

This begins by getting all your stakeholders equally on board. Make this a priority. It’s easy to overlook this step when you’re overwhelmed with putting out fires, but it’s necessary to assure you have the firehoses and water you’ll need to get the job done. 

You can’t lead without followers. 

And you won’t have followers unless you talk to people. Figure out who you most need to talk to, and partner with, right now. I’ve long been a fan of the CEO/Board Chair partnership model espoused by Joan Garry, and I highly recommend her blog for all things related to nonprofit leadership. So tuck that away, and stop beating yourself up for not being able to juggle every ball on your own.

You require ongoing support or your efforts won’t be sustainable. 

You need others to whom you can toss some balls. Or at least others to spell you while you grab a nap! If it’s not staff, you’ll need board members… committee members… interns… other volunteers. And you’ll need donors to continue being the superheroes who give your stories happy endings.

When you develop a strong, healthy partnership between staff and lay leaders you’re able to weather the storms. 

Similarly, when you keep donors close, and treat them like members of your family, you’re able to withstand the tsunami. When you don’t, it’s easy to get blown off course, or maybe even drown.

The road ahead is a long one; the journey will be better with companionable travelers. 

Consider what you can do, this week or next, to better connect with your stakeholders. I can already see you smiling, happily tossing balls back and forth as you move along the pathway towards passionate philanthropy.

Safe journey on your nonprofit juggling journey.

Nonprofit Sustainability

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.