Abe Lincoln on the Apollo 13

As we consider what the next four years have in store for nonprofits, we imagine Abe Lincoln strapped into the Apollo 13 spacecraft hurtling toward disaster and repeating his famous saying, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”

Really? How do nonprofits create their own future given the gravity of the current political environment?

But then, we recall what followed that famous line on the Apollo 13, “Houston, we have a problem.” Everyone panicked, but then they calmed down. They asked themselves: what resources do we have at our disposal? How much time do we have? How do we figure out how to create something very different out of what we have in the time in front of us in order to land safely?

We don’t hold the conceit to be able to predict the future, but here are Fairmount Ventures’ suggestions on what nonprofits should be doing now to prepare for the unknown to come when a new regime takes over in Washington.

Engage your board and raise what’s expected of them. This is no time for Show & Tell board meetings, or board members not being all in. Reorganize board meetings to discuss what’s really important and start contingency planning. Board members need to understand every aspect of your organization: what programs are working best and maximizing return on mission, and by inference which are less important; how each program is funded; and what’s at risk. Board and management should work together to create contingency plans, i.e., if federal funds are reduced or cut, determine in advance what is essential to mission and should continue, even if it means redirecting discretionary philanthropic support or volunteer efforts.

Mobilize the Outraged. Lots of people are outraged by where the federal government will try to take the country, and want to do something about it. One productive way for people to channel this fury is to support your organization with their time and money. Remember, people’s money follows how they spend their time. Appeals for donations are more powerful after people are engaged in substantive ways.

Have transparent conversations with funders… now. Foundations and major donors are asking themselves what the future might look like and what they should do about it. Help them answer the questions. Engage your program officers and major donors in a conversation regarding what they are thinking. Let them know what you are doing to prepare for possible changes in public policies and funding, and speak directly about how you may need their help to maintain what matters most, which could be different from before. Funders will need to understand that they – like everyone else – cannot assume business as usual if the external environment dramatically changes.

Remember, self-care is not selfish. The next four years are going to be a marathon, not a sprint. The key to running long distances is all in your head; staying calm, putting one foot in front of the other, running one mile at a time. Just as in a marathon, it will be important to take time to take joy from what you have and can do, get energy from those around you, and take care of everyone in the race with you.

So, maybe Abe Lincoln has something to teach us. We can continue to create the future we want in a harsh environment, but it will require staying calm, being resourceful, and looking out for one another.