I just finished re-reading the classic little book Who Moved My Cheese? It gave me a better understanding of what is happening in the nonprofit community—not just here in Kansas City, but across the nation.
For many years, the national United Way system has been struggling to redefine itself. Its leaders have created new methods for allocating money, and somehow they believe that “moving the cheese around” will make their cause more attractive to donors who have, over the years, found United Way to be waning in relevance.
That logic escapes me. In my opinion, United Way will become less relevant as it leaves gaping holes in human services programs. I guess you could call it their “Swiss cheese model” for meeting human needs. I assume United Way realizes that its decision to cut much-needed funding will actually force established, well-respected organizations such as the American Red Cross to compete more directly with them for contributions from within the same donor pool.
To be transparent, I must disclose two important facts about myself before I continue sharing my opinions.
First, I am responsible for marketing at the American Red Cross of Greater Kansas City, the single largest recipient of United Way allocations in this region. Though I am employed by the Red Cross, this blog post has been written on my personal time and entirely reflects only my own opinions, not those of my employer.
Second, before coming to the Red Cross I served as the vice president of marketing for the United Way of Greater Kansas City. Because I have always had great respect for the organization and its mission, I am both a Diamond Donor (meaning I’ve given for 25+ years) and I’m also a member of the Leadership Giving Circle. However, in the weeks ahead I intend to reevaluate whether United Way is the wise investment I once thought it was.
By the way, I have many friends who work at United Way. They are exceptionally professional individuals and nothing I say here is a personal indictment of them or anyone else.
Dealing with Change
My purpose is not to disparage United Way or to marginalize its role in the community. Rather, this is my assessment of what the American Red Cross and other such organizations must do when forced to search for “cheese” in new corridors within the maze.
I believe major funding cuts from United Way can provide defining, watershed moments for progressive organizations. When compelled to find new sources of “cheese” these organizations will reduce their long-standing dependency upon United Way as a funding partner. Such changes can ultimately strengthen the American Red Cross and other nonprofit agencies as they regain more control over their own destinies.
So what are the first steps in recovering from a sudden and unexpected change of plans?
For starters, we must find answers to three very important questions—questions that are relevant far beyond the context of the evolving relationship between the Red Cross and United Way. The following questions can bring focus to any organization, group or individual confronted with major change:
- What happened?
- What impact will this have?
- What are we going to do about it?
Let’s briefly look at each question, applying it to whatever changes you may be encountering in your life.
1. What happened?
To think clearly, you first must remove emotion from your assessment. Look objectively at what has happened. Ask lots of questions, analyze data and study the trends. If essential information is missing, find ways to acquire the needed information.
2. What impact with this have?
Once you understand what actually happened, you then need to ask, “So what?”
Evaluate the impact of your changing circumstances.
No matter what, never let something distract you from fulfilling your mission. Organizations and individuals alike must determine how they can best stay focused when unexpected change happens. You’ll likely have fewer resources to work with and adjustments will be inevitable. But never allow that to become an excuse for backing away from your purpose or mission.
3. What are we going to do?
After you know what happened, and once you understand the impact, it time to make a plan and take action.
Often it’s helpful to convene a group of diverse stakeholders who can brainstorm ideas from a variety of vantage points. A well-facilitated planning process can produce ideas that a visionary leader can then use as the basis for a plan of action.
One thing is certain—the future will not be an extension of the past. Change happens. Someone moved our cheese. So what are we going to do about it?
The American Red Cross has an important work to do in the community. Much is at stake and we have some crucial decisions to make. I trust that we will respond with an abundance mentality rather than with a fearful scarcity mindset. I hope to be part of creating the long-term solutions that will help the American Red Cross continue doing what it does best—with or without United Way.
I’ll close with a favorite quote from the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The human race built most nobly when limitations were greatest and, therefore, when most was required of imagination in order to build at all.