Thinking About the Core In A Time of Retrenchment

by Anne Yurasek on April 15, 2008

5103219_c36732b75a_m I have been having so many discussions about retrenchment lately.  The fiscal situation in Rhode Island is so scary and there are so many deep cuts in human service supports under consideration.  I am hearing from clients that I haven’t spoken to in years, asking for help with mergers, management service organizations, and networks capable of managed care contracting. 

While I certainly know the mechanics of creating these entities and have preached for years that they are necessary for the survival of the sector, it is still tough to outline what organizations have to undo, give up, shift away.  It is hard to interact with people who have only known how to build and expand, whose entire careers have been about expanding access, adding services, pushing out to wider geographic areas, inventing new ways to help, building teams of staff that have taken years to assemble and refine, when your message is about undoing, pulling back, shrinking, eliminating services, crafting a smaller, tighter, more nimble organization, letting people go.  Too often the people who are adversely affected are not just employees, not just colleagues, but have, through a career of shared proximity, become friends.  This is just painful to watch.

So I have been working to craft a set of experiences and processes, and a message strategy that helps with the transition, that envisions what could be on the other side of this great divide full of potential loss.   The message is about fighting back of course (who would we be if we did not advocate for those we serve?),  but it is also about finding what is essential in what you have already built.   I draw on analogies from psychology and medicine.  When the body is stressed, when the mind is stressed, you focus very clearly on survival.  But when you are very ill, it can be helpful to envision yourself well and whole again, rather than give in to the deer in the headlights syndrome of utter paralysis.  Part of that envisioning, is to understand who you are, what makes you, you.  The process also involves stretching notions of possibility.  When we are stressed we do focus, but often too much, inadvertently narrowing our options. 

One ED asked me point blank, “How can we plan now?  We don’t know what will actually happen?”   While it may seem counterintuitive, this is when planning will count the most.  So I start by asking my clients to focus on the core of what they have built.  There are a variety of ways to get at the core and it takes an iterative process to find that set of values, or competencies or programs that express, for the leadership, the essential core of this particular nonprofit. For some it is the whole agency and they envision all of what they do but in a smaller sized package.  For others, there is a paring away of the not so essential programs, to find the heart of what they do.  For others it is a primary relationship that must be enacted in a certain way to have value:  a particular model between service provider and consumer.  Others choose a group of people as the core, the group of people who have the most creative minds, who are the most likely to be able to reposition and reinvent. 

Once the core is identified, we engage in a process of envisioning the organization with an intact core and craft a strategy to ensure that happens.  This is enormously useful when planning for layoffs.  It is so helpful to know, quite clearly, who you can let go and who you must convince to stay.  Once this picture becomes clear, it becomes possible to go back to environmental scanning that looks at new possibilities or to talk about mergers.  It is much easier to enter into merger discussions if leadership knows quite clearly what must survive for the organization’s history of service to have ongoing meaning and worth. 

It does occur to me as I write this, that this mental exercise might be healthy for any organization in any environment. If you are facing these types of challenges, what types of planning activities are you undertaking?

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