Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Conflicting wants

Got a nice note from a Canadian MBA student today who noted that her final paper topic was about the issues nonprofit execs face that often arise when they try to meet the wants of two conflicting markets---the people they serve and the people who pay.

How often has this dilemma faced your organization, particularly when there are service cuts/changes mandated by a funder that directly impact on services in a way that upsets the people an organization serves? Here, the nonprofit is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. If they don't make the changes, the funder can (and will) pull their funding or penalize the organization in some way. If the do make the changes, they are seen as the villain by the people that they most want to help.

What to do? Couple of suggestions.

First, don't wait for this conflict to arise before you take action. Engage with all your markets now, not just in a crisis. Treat all your markets like valued customers (even your funders) and ask them what they want, explore what their problems are, and try to solve them. Earn the trust of both the funder and the service recipients. Let them know you care about what they think and are concerned about helping them.

Don't buy it? Try thinking of it this way. Imagine you live on a street where your neighbor to your right and your neighbor to your left are having a big, big dispute. They are fighting on your lawn day after day. It is obviously in your best interest to try to help them compromise. But if you have never made an effort to get to know your neighbors, if they don't know you really have their best interest at heart, why should they trust you (and being a trustworthy negotiator is a key part of successful negotiations)? If you had gotten to know the neighbors BEFORE their dispute, you could do some good. But you can't start earning trust after everyone's mad.

Reach out to your markets now. To your funders. To your service recipients. Don't wait until a crisis erupts and everyone has their hackles up.

It's too late then, and your mission suffers.

And, thanks, Hannah, for raising this issue again for me.

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