Lessons from Mother Nature

August 31, 2011

As I write this, the East Coast is recovering from the effects of Hurricane Irene, a storm that didn’t quite live up to her advance billing, but that wreaked billions of dollars in damages and claimed at least 49 lives. The biggest earthquake in 50 years just shuddered through the region, causing damage to two of the most famous Washington fixtures: the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral.

Too depressing to look outside, I decide. I’ll just settle down and read the paper. But it provides cold comfort, especially for those of us who care about the nonprofit sector:

  • Extreme market volatility means major gift conversations are on hold due to uncertainty
  • The possibility of double dip recession means organizations that are on the edge might find themselves pushed over the brink
  • The Congressional Super Committee must make significant funding cuts—and we all know that our sector has a big, fat target on its back
  • The charitable deduction is once again on the chopping block, likely creating disincentives for individual donors to give. I guess we’ll have to look to the foundations…but see bullet point one.

Did I just hear locusts marching in the distance?

I hope not. But in case the locusts do come—metaphorically speaking— just as we wrote during the economic crisis of 2008-10, now is not a good time to panic. We’ve been here before, and we’ve learned some lessons.

Here’s one:  Now IS a good time to pull out your strategic plan, dust it off if necessary, and make sure the plan includes a detailed road map towards sustainability. Depending on your funding structure, your plan should either move you further down the road towards the independence that comes from an earned revenue model, or ensure that you have, and continue to seek, multiple funding sources.  Over-reliance on any one funder or revenue stream could leave you stranded if that source dries up.

While I will be the first to say that it’s a new world out there, full of new ideas, technologies, challenges and opportunities, and we can never go back to “normal” again, there are some things which absolutely never change, and this is one of them:  don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Take a lesson from Mother Nature and think “biodiversity of revenue,” and you’ll be headed down that golden road towards sustainability.


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