Entrusted with Uncertainty
Leaders in all industries have had a crash course in facing change and uncertainty over the past few years. And while “expect the unexpected” is far from a new idea for leaders, a global pandemic probably wasn’t high on anyone’s list of potential challenges.
So, what should Christian nonprofit leaders do when entrusted with this uncertainty?
After 2020, a more apt approach may be to expect the really unexpected and be prepared for many repercussions. Although all businesses had to pivot quickly to new ways of operating during the pandemic, nonprofits had more on the line when it came to being able to serve their constituents, whose need for services like healthcare and food assistance drastically increased almost overnight.
Navigating Uncertainty Well
The past few years have been a shared experience of navigating uncertainty in business and in life, but every nonprofit is consistently faced with unique challenges. So, what should Christian nonprofit leaders do when entrusted with this uncertainty?
Organizations with stable and time-tested operational plans in place will be better prepared to continue serving out their missions in the midst of external challenges and changes. In this article, we will discuss three key considerations for Christian nonprofits as they manage uncertainty: 1) Creating a “True North” operating plan that aligns with your guiding strategic plan, 2) Evaluating and assembling an effective team, and 3) Implementing technology solutions.
Develop a “True North” Operating Plan
The idea of “True North” is a prevailing theme in Scripture, from Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” to Psalm 16:8, “I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” In addition, this theme carries over into the mission and vision statements of Christian nonprofits worldwide. United by and anchored in a shared faith, these organizations’ leaders have a firm foundation in place. However, having the right intentions will only carry them so far. They must also put in place an additional layer of infrastructure to support the organization’s mission and programs.
This can help you create an operating plan that remains aligned with your strategic plan.
Many nonprofit leaders feel that they have a responsibility to their donors to maximize program expenditures and keep administrative costs as low as possible. While the founders and leaders of most mission-driven organizations are willing to do anything they can to serve their constituents, this places unnecessary limitations on the organization’s outcomes in the long run. As a CPA and consulting firm, we often see organizations that demand excellence in their client-facing roles but do not demand the same excellence in their back-office staff. Out of sight does not mean out of mind when organizations are working to change people’s lives.
Although it might seem counterproductive to increase administrative costs by investing in technology and personnel, having the right automation and people in place will lead to more effective, and more intentional, programming budgets. This can help you create an operating plan that remains aligned with your strategic plan.
Evaluate and Assemble an Effective Team
Leaders of Christian nonprofits may often feel that they cannot afford to hire the right talent to take their finance and administrative functions to the next level. However, this is not all or nothing. It is imperative for your leadership team to evaluate your current staff, determine potential knowledge or skill gaps, and talk through the options for filling those gaps.
Helping your current staff become more efficient and effective could involve providing them with free or low-cost training through webinars and online courses. If a specific area of knowledge is lacking, one of your team members could pursue a specialized certification through the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), such as the AICPA Not-for-Profit Certificate. You also may want to consider reviewing the job duties and functions within your back office as a whole. Assess how to reallocate responsibilities in a way that better aligns with each employee’s experience and expertise.
Completing this exercise might also reveal gaps that none of your current staff can fill. You might even find that misaligned responsibilities and underqualified staff have had a negative impact on employee morale and organizational culture, causing unnecessary turnover or burnout.
The Outsourcing Option
Outsourcing certain tasks is a much more viable option for many nonprofits than they may think. Using an outside firm or entity to perform the duties your organization currently does not have the capacity or skills for can provide several advantages:
- You can hire highly skilled professionals who have worked with many other nonprofit organizations and have the benefit of experience in a variety of situations.
- As your organization goes through ebbs and flows during the year, you can increase and decrease the number of outsourced hours you use accordingly.
- An effective outsourced firm will stay up to date on changes in regulations and best practices that could increase your effectiveness and compliance.
By employing these strategies with your current staff or outsourcing certain tasks, or both, your leadership team can bring your administrative and finance staff into the fold, clearly connecting them to your nonprofit’s “True North” operational plans and aligning them to your mission and programs.
Implement Technology Solutions
Outdated technology and manual processes can neutralize the effectiveness of even the highest-quality back-office staff. If you have not analyzed your current technology solutions in the past two or three years, they may be causing more challenges than benefits. The solution could be as simple as contacting the company and asking for a demonstration of any new features of which you might be unaware. Otherwise, you might need to switch to a new product that will better serve your needs.
Assessing your organization’s current technology solutions and the elements that are necessary for efficient functioning and then outlining the potential gap between the two is a very helpful exercise to view through the lens of your “True North” operational and strategic plans. It might seem overwhelming to think about the cost involved in upgrading certain technology solutions to better suit your organization’s needs and to allow for more efficient functioning in the back office. However, this investment in the future will provide additional capacity for delivering on your mission.
Whether you maintain your existing software or upgrade to something new, it is crucial to research the available integrations and automations. You can tie most major systems together in a way that will reduce manual entry (and potential errors), save time, and provide useful data and insights. A little bit of research and time spent on setup at the start can have positive repercussions for your organization, your stakeholders, and the populations you serve for years to come.
With all the daily demands on nonprofit leaders’ time and attention, some things can fall by the wayside. However, if you invest energy in establishing and maintaining these “True North” operational strategies, the benefits will have a ripple effect and can contribute to your organization’s long-term success.
Fran Brown is Managing Partner of CapinCrouse LLP, a national CPA and consulting firm devoted to serving nonprofit organizations. As Managing Partner, Fran leads the firm and guides the implementation of strategic plans and objectives. He has over 35 years of experience working with a variety of nonprofits. Stan Reiff serves as Partner and Professional Practice Leader – Consulting at CapinCrouse LLP. Stan’s professional experience includes over 35 years in ministry operations, public accounting, government accounting, and international missions.