During this seemingly endless period of economic stagnation, “repurpose” has emerged as the word of the decade. Repurpose is omnipresent. My wife recently “repurposed” a duvet that our dog had chewed by patching the hole and stuffing it into a new cover she made from some leftover fabric from a long-forgotten sewing project. Angus Loten’s recent WSJ article, “When Cost Cuts Fail… Drastic Measures, tells the tale of small businesses repurposing their entire business model to stay afloat. It seems we are all repurposing: in some cases voluntarily, like my wife who enjoys interior design, and in more cases involuntarily, like the businesses in the WSJ story and the many unfortunate workers who are being repurposed into consumers at food pantries and human services providers by long-term unemployment.
In many ways (consider this another free proposal transition phrase), nonprofits are really small businesses, even if they are run by True Believers. Like small business, nonprofits have formal or informal business plans; resources in the form of cash reserves, facilities, equipment, human capital, and organizational experience; target markets and customers; “angel investors” in the form of consistent volunteers and donors; and, although they operate as “tax exempt,” nonprofits are responsible for payroll taxes, gas taxes, utility taxes and user fees (thinly disguised taxes enacted by strapped local governments), meaning their tax burden is not zero as is often imagined.
One big difference between the challenged small businesses discussed in the WSJ story above and most nonprofits is that nonprofits usually lack the ability to obtain lines of credit to carry the agency during difficult times and are more likely to quickly cut staff and programs than businesses that depend on personnel to generate revenue. As the nonprofit cuts staff and programs, it loses its organizational credibility among its consumers, remaining funders and, most importantly, future funders. This can become a death spiral for a nonprofit. Since the Great Recession hit, we have worked for some hollowed-out nonprofits that at one time had fairly broad programming but are now more or less shells. Through the magic of grant writing, we can make them appear whole, at least in the proposal world. It is better for the organization and the populations they serve, however, to repurpose themselves before they become nonprofit versions of the ghosts in Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place, who take a while to realize they’re already dead.*
Whether they realize it or not, many nonprofits will either have to repurpose themselves by seeking new grants, making better use of social media and accepting the changes that have arrived in the nonprofit world.
If you’re running a nonprofit, a staff member sitting in a strategy meeting, or a board member, find a way to repurpose your nonprofit. Look at the resources you have, your nonprofit competitors, the challenges emerging in your community and the endless possibilities of new federal, state, local and foundation grants. Get going. As I have been blogging about for months, the most nimble nonprofits will transition part or all of their suite of services (another free proposal phrase) and will emerge different but stronger when the economy eventually recovers. I just didn’t have the right word for this process, but thanks to my wife and the WSJ, I do now: repurpose.
* Like the rest of human existence, when a old nonprofit does not repurpose itself and goes under, it will provide a niche for a new nonprofit, since presumably the problems it was addressing still exist in its target community. See this post I wrote on the subject last November: “Grant Writing from Recession to Recession: This is a Great Time to Start a New Nonprofit.”