The new year is a time for new approaches to old problems, but in today's tough economic environment, many in the non-profit arena feel that taking time to sit back and refresh their perspective is a luxury they cannot afford.
For others, periodic goal-setting, analysis of progress toward objectives and setting new priorities are continuing tasks. These people recognize that despite their toll on staff time, these reappraisals ultimately benefit the organization, increasing its competitiveness when it is most needed.
Frequently, these executives use New Year's as a convenient break point to set personal and professional goals. As I gathered New Year's resolutions from a sampling of directors of Baltimore-area non-profit organizations, I was struck at how many focused on the customer.
I've recently had the chance to observe a large Maryland non-profit organization embark on an exciting self-examination that will radically change the way it operates in 1992 and beyond. The blood services side of the Maryland Chapter of the American Red Cross just completed a two-day retreat for its senior staff in which they grappled with the implications of Total Quality Management for the organization.
It appeared to be a positive experience for all participants, an observation borne out by the fact that David Simms, head of the blood services division, decided to link the process to his New Year's resolutions.
"One of my resolutions is to insure that we treat all of our blood donors, volunteers and hospital customers the way we would want to be treated if we were in those positions," he said. "In other words, put their interests first in everything we do. Coupled with that, I am also resolving to do my part in bringing the management to do everything possible to support the front-line staff, so they can best serve our customers."
At the Maryland Food Bank, one of the better-known and more effective non-profits in the region, Executive Director Bill Ewing and his staff have just begun the process of examining and redefining their mission statement and looking at their customer delivery systems in terms of quality controls.
After a lot of self-examination, Mr. Ewing responded to my request for his resolutions with this:
"For 1992, I'd like to maximize our efforts as a food resource and also allow us to give something less tangible, but just as nourishing -- a sense of real caring for our customers."
Pressed for more details, Mr. Ewing said: "The needs will be greater next year. Maryland's emergency care providers will have to work harder in 1992 with fewer dollars. I'm concerned about that and am committed to finding ways to help them with more than just more food."
Worlds away in terms of mission is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which now enjoys a world-class reputation. Committed to maintaining that high standard, the BSO has launched a series of activities aimed at listening to the needs of audiences, its own musicians and its administrative staff.
Executive Director John Gidwitz's resolution for 1992 speaks to those goals:
"I want to give more opportunities to the talented staff members of the BSO to develop and carry out their ideas for the orchestra," which include some creative ways to address customer needs.
Mr. Gidwitz and everyone at the BSO work hard to maintain open lines of communication so musicians and administrators stay focused on common goals. One result, he said, has been a positive working relationship between the two groups despite the fact they sit on opposite sides of the table during contract negotiations.
Paying attention to what "internal markets" -- staff, board members, volunteers -- want is the most critical first step toward creating an effective organization, whether for-profit or non-profit. This includes many activities, ranging from enabling staff to be their most creative to beefing up active listening skills.
Today's non-profit marketplace is more competitive than ever before. Some tried-and-true approaches have tired and are no longer as effective as they were a few years ago. One of my resolutions for 1992 is to fine-tune my listening skills so the solutions our company develops with our clients are as creative and effective as possible.
Unfortunately, that doesn't cut the mustard for my editor. For him I resolve to stay ahead of deadline every week.
Well, OK, except for next week, 'cause there's this conference I should attend, and . . .
Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.