Time to Close Doors?

Dear Kim:

For the past 25 years our organization has provided a variety of social services in our community of 55,000 people. The type of services varied over the years, from free daycare to Meals on Wheels to job training to helping women coming off of welfare with clothes and coaching for job interviews (like “Dress for Success”) and the like. We usually offered two or three services at any given time. Every year, at our Annual General Meeting (AGM), our members determined which services were most needed. The membership was made up of people from the community, and the system worked really well for a long time. But for the last ten years, attendance at the AGM has been dwindling, and volunteerism has fallen off. A few years ago, we were very excited to hire our first professional executive director. He was able to get a fair amount of government and foundation grants, and they demanded much more research to determine our “outcomes.” (Previously we were funded by membership dues and fundraising events.) Community members began to feel that the organization was bureaucratic and that people were being treated like “charity cases” instead of just people who needed a helping hand for a little while.

We are now down to five board members (I am the Chair). Our AGM had 15 people in attendance (down from a high of 200 some years). We are burned out, our Executive Director has left to take a job as a program officer at a foundation, and we hardly have any money in the pipeline. I want the organization to stay open, but I don’t have the energy to make that happen. And no one else does either. We are hanging on, hoping for a lifeline of some kind to be thrown our way. (Please don’t publish the name of our town.)

What should we do?

~Down for the Count


Dear Count Down:

Your letter practically brought tears to my eyes. I could write a book about how your organization has been twisted and morphed by the demands of funders and the “professionalism” of your executive director, but I won’t right now. I will just say that our sector has got to stop fetishizing professionalism and stop thinking that measuring everything is some determinant of quality.

But that doesn’t help you. When you get into a crisis like you are now, the first question you have to answer is “Do we want the organization to continue?” In my book, Fundraising in Times of Crisis, I noted, “This is the A-#1 question and the answer is not always obvious. The tendency of organizations is to say, “Well of course we must keep going. What will happen to the children/trees/clients/research if we don’t?” But let me be clear from the get-go: feelings of SHOULD, MUST, OUGHT will not sustain an organization.”

A cross section of people in your community need to step up to the plate and resoundingly say, “We want this organization to continue and we will do the work it takes to make this happen.” If you cannot find these people, please consider closing. Your organization has done wonderful needed work for 25 years. If you close, it will be very sad, but you will create the space for a new organization to arise and do this work. Or the work will be divided over other organizations. But when you stay open with no energy, you take up space that another organization could fill. Even if you do a decent job, but without any passion, creativity and enthusiasm, your organization does the community a disservice to continue existing in that condition.

I often find that when someone on the board utters the words, “Let’s close” everyone feels relief. Your struggle could be over. Then some people feel, “No, I want to fight for this organization” and they take up the fight. But the people who think, “I have done all I can and I want to leave” are able to do that without guilt, without regret. There is no disgrace in closing. IT does not mean failure and it does not take away all that happened over all those years.

Good luck.

~Kim Klein