Friday, March 6, 2009

In Times Like These - Donor's Forum Conference

Today's not an easy time to be a non-profit. Actually, it's not an easy time to be an American - the newest unemployment figures have come out and we are up to 8.1% unemployment, with 650,000 jobs lost in the month of February alone. However, tough times have happened before and often creative people use these types of rough economic times to come up with creative ways to make the world a better place. Just look at all the great public works programs that resulted out of the Great Depression.

For these reasons, I was very excited about going to a conference this morning at Roosevelt University, run by Donor's Forum about "Best Practices and Resources for Non-Profit Leaders." Donor's Forum is " the premier resource for networking and education, information and knowledge, and leadership on behalf of philanthropy in Illinois." This forum was greatly needed and I was pleased to see many of my tutoring and mentoring colleagues attending as well.

I could write pages about what I learned this morning, but I think the best way to convey to you all the great ideas that people brought to the conference is to write about what the most important idea that I came back to work with out of each of the speakers.

The structure of the conference worked very well. The morning was divided into six speakers, each talking about an important topic relating to helping non-profits survive the recession.

The first speaker was Anna Sullivan, with the Arts & Business Council of Chicago.
Ms. Sullivan spoke about the importance of good board governance. I believe board governance is an especially important topic in these times as many non-profit organizations rely on boards to bring in funding and be the faces of that organization to the public. In fact, we are going to have a panel discussion at the May Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conference specifically about board governance, because we think it's so importance. Anyway, the big idea that came out of this discussion is that the members of your board are a wealth of resources and knowledge and their creativity and talent are keys to finding new ways to get dollars and survive this economic downturn.

The second topic was about financial management - a topic addressed by Richard Kurtz,the executive director of Lumity, a Chicago-based non-profit consulting service. Mr. Kurtz addressed the fact that the economic downturn was a perfect time to give a deeper look into the budget and that new and creative ways of improving your cash position and budgeting conservatively could benefit your organization in the long term.

The third topic was on Human Resources (both paid and volunteer) and was led by Jeanne Mayes of the Executive Service Corps. The main point that I took away from Ms. Mayes was that the economic downturn is a perfect time for organizations to create better transparency of its management with employees. Not only will employees be able to actively engage in helping the management of the organization navigate these tough times, but they will also be better prepared to address any changes that the organization might have to go through.

Communications was the fourth topic and it was led by Thom Clark of the Community Media Workshop. I think the best thing that I took away from this discussion was the great opportunity that Facebook is in helping both large organizations advance their cause, especially to a younger audience, and help small organizations in acting as somewhat of a proxy webpage for the organization if their not enough funding or resources to maintain a website.

Fundraising, the fifth topic, seemed to be the topic that everyone came for. Jamie Phillipe, of the Chicago Community Trust for Donors Forum. Ms. Phillipe's main point was to remain optimistic and creative during the downturn and to look at the big picture in fundraising - that just because a company or a foundation doesn't immediately donate, but to stay persistent and positive because you never know when new funding could arise

The final topic was on advocacy, especially political advocacy since it was presented by Larry Suffredin, who is the current 13th District Cook County Commisioner. Mr. Suffredin gave us tips on how to most constructively contact your legislator and how to get political figures to come to your organization's events. His emphasis in that respect is that just because a political figure attends your organization's event doesn't mean that that should be the end of the relationship and that it's especially valuable to have someone be a liaison to that person in the organization before, during, and after an event.

Despite these difficult times, I came out of this conference feeling inspired and optimistic. We will be able to make it through these tough economic times if we have just a little bit of creativity and resilience in us!

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