If you are anything like me, you grew up pinching a penny, stretching a dollar, making ends meet, doing more with less. These activities are all admirable except when you work for a not-for-profit organization; doing more with less is not sustainable. Governments cut funding, granters can’t support everyone, and donations are affected by downturns in the economy and the whims of donors. When not-for-profits find their funding is less than what they really need to sustain current programming levels they tend to go into preservation mode. They start cutting budgets, taking a few dollars from here, a few from there, and providing the same level of service despite the declining funding.

Dollar SignsThe fact is that when an organization receives less funding, it needs to do less programming. If not-for-profits don’t take this to heart, they are telling funders that they can manage with less, even when it actually means they are stretched to the breaking point. When funders decrease their support, it only makes sense that organizations need to do less with less, not more with less.

An executive director I know worked very closely with her board to figure out how they could offer the same level of service that they had always offered to their clients despite the fact that the government funding had remained flat and not increased in a number of years. Inflation had also increased costs related to staffing and overhead, making the current level of service unsustainable. After trying for years to provide more of their much needed services with a steadily decreasing financial bottom line, the organization came to the conclusion that they had to do less with the level of funding they received.

This organization approached their government funder and advised that without increased funding, 25 programming spots would close in the next fiscal year. Rather than trying to do more with less, the organization made a case to their primary funder that they would have to do less with less. The funder recognized the service as critical and the mission outcomes as solid, and proceeded to increase funding in the next year to ensure the programming spots remained open.

The lesson of this story is not to hold the funder hostage in an attempt to loosen the purse strings, but rather to create an honest and full accounting of the cost of doing business at the level that funders and other stakeholders have come to expect. If the true cost is greater than the funding currently received, programs and services need to be cut back accordingly in order to maintain programming quality and safety. Working harder and longer without being appropriately funded is not the answer. Choosing to do less with less is.