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A Framework for Scaling Down or Shifting Rapidly

None of us has seen a moment quite like this. Unfortunately, while some are scaling up at rocket speed to get food to those in need and provide medical care to those without insurance, far too many organizations are facing the reality of urgently scaling back or shifting resources in the hopes of surviving this crisis.

In order for the nonprofit sector to return ready and able to effectively serve a landscape that, in my opinion, will likely be much-altered, it’s imperative that you scale back strategically, with intention, and without hobbling your organization’s essential infrastructure for the future. How do you make those critical decisions and where do you start???

In a post from 2018 I reflected on my experience cutting my $3 million budget in half within a 48 hour window to respond to huge funding cuts due to the 2008 financial crisis. With those lessons in mind, I’ve created this framework for Scaling Down/Shifting Rapidly:

Step 1: Take care of yourself.
You must meet your most basic human needs first. You will not be able to think strategically and clearly or lead effectively without taking that step. Secure your family’s safety and pull out the tricks that work best for you to keep your mind, body, and spirit oxygenated.

Step 2: Focus on what you can control.
Make a list with two columns: “What I can control” and “What I cannot control.” Set aside the things you can’t control and spend mindshare on the things you can control today.

Step 3: Return to the core.
What is your organization’s core purpose or reason for existing? And what is your team’s core competency? This is your focus. Right now, if it isn’t essential to your core mission or you’re not the best in class at it, that’s a sign that it might be something to let go. Can we be stronger with fewer, more impactful programs? Fewer, stronger team members? Is it possible to carve off services or programs without harming our most vital services or losing our most important talent? What must we preserve at all costs?

Step 4: Survey the landscape.
Spend time understanding how things are changing. What is needed right now in your community? What is not essential at this time? How can you serve in this moment? Could your team be re-tooled to perform an essential service during the crisis? Of those things, what can have the greatest impact? Where do we have capacity in this new landscape that can be used to drive impact elsewhere? Where is there an opportunity to do something differently to drive more impact or free up resources to fuel our core focus?

Step 5: Imagine.
What might things look like in 6-18 months when we begin to re-emerge from this crisis? What will be different? What will be the same? How can you position your organization now to serve then? What is your “Crisis Exit Strategy?” You may have to ramp up as quickly as you scaled down. What resources will you need? What talent is vital to serve short-term and to sustain the organization long-term? Don’t completely deplete your budget in places that will be vital for your return when the time comes (i.e. key talent; essential technology; connections to constituents, donors, partners or key stakeholders).

Step 6: Find the Silver Linings.
Be on the lookout for silver linings in the form of opportunities. Coming together with new strategic partners, serving new populations, qualifying for emergency state, local, and federal funding, learning new skills, and, yes, even laying off poor performers. This is where the old adage, “Never waste a good crisis” comes into play.

Step 7: Plan for different budget scenarios.
Take a look at your budget. How will you operate at 80% of budget? 50%? 30%? Can you tighten up expenses? Can you devise payment plans with vendors? What is your available line of credit? Are there pledges that are not likely to be honored because of the economy? Develop these scenarios today, so that as the crisis progresses, you will have a set of decisions ready to roll out depending on the reality you face.

Step 8: Make a short-term strategic plan.
Craft an agile, simple plan that (1) allows you to be most effective during the crisis and (2) preserves your organization’s core mission, resources, and infrastructure and (3) positions you for success on the back end of the crisis.

Step 9: Face the tough choices. Your organization will not survive without facing reality, having painfully honest and open discussions, and making the extremely hard choices. Face them. Make the call as soon as you can. Things are moving too quickly to hold out. If you know what you need to do, do it. If you’re not sure, seek help making your decisions.

Step 10: Seek help.
You don’t have to do this alone. Leverage the knowledge, perspective and talents of your team, your board, mentors, stakeholders, and others who can add value to your decision making.

This is an unprecedented moment in all of our lives. It will require us to be bold. It will require us to be focused. It will require us to be innovative. It will also require us to come together and support each other. If you need support, contact us. We want to help.