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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How a small nonprofit organization survived the Great Recession

The year is 2008. Overnight, banks and financial institutions are in crisis, the stock market plunges, interest rates and housing prices drop, corporate sales and profits dip, employment lines grow, funds everywhere dry up. Nonprofits, the fifth largest industry in Arizona, historically the recipient of a most generous donor base, now wear the burden of the downturn in the national economy.

The number of nonprofit agencies that succumbed to the recession is not the topic of this essay. Suffice to say, that most survived, some due to good luck, others to large contributions that came their way in the early months. As the funding pot boiled down, nonprofit managers tightened our belts. Responsibilities fell to the board of directors and executive directors to do something to save their organizations.

Executive directors, along with their bookkeepers, heard the clock ticking and felt the impact first. Staff! How do we meet our biggest expense, payroll, with the next fiscal quarter looming? Clients! How do we serve our needy client base: vulnerable individuals, “our” families and “our kids?” At that point in time, keeping ourselves employed wasn’t even a thought.

With no time to spare and with no colleagues with whom to collaborate (we were all too busy), executive directors had to act. Now, holed up our offices, we had to reach into our inner strengths. Each had to look to our individual motivations, and come up with self-satisfying answers for doing what we do: How devoted are we to the work we do? Is this a job or a vocation?

If one’s work as an executive director of a nonprofit organization is a vocation, a “calling,” the answers to the following questions are likely to be YES!:

    • Are you willing to work longer hours?
      • New ideas take additional time.
    • Are you willing to take risks within your organizational structure?
      • Can you break with protocols and traditions?
    • Do you believe you will be successful?
      • The outcome of almost every decision is determined here.
    • Are you willing to go at it alone?
      • During this time, staff and volunteers necessarily retreated into their own person situations, and thus were less available to help the EDs. Worse, staff and volunteers dwindled.


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  • If one’s work is more career or job than vocation, some of the above answers are more likely to be no. Regardless, executive directors are executive directors for a reason: We are entrepreneurial; we have vision, the capability to see future outcomes. Often type-A personalities, we turn toward a challenge, rather than back away from obstacles. The job must be done. Many of us decided that anything that could happen now was the answer. Put out a mailing to past donors, create a marketing campaign and yet another fundraiser. (A third fundraiser in a year is usually frowned upon.)
  • Our nonprofit 50l(c)(3) child advocacy agency survived the Great Recession of 2008-2013. Defenders of Children headquartered in Phoenix has served statewide some 6,000 at-risk children and kinship during that time. Three fundraisers per year took place, calling on different populations of attendees. New volunteers came in to fill staff positions. I filled out “wild-card” grant applications and wrote first-time proposals to national and government groups. Social media and design abilities using email marketing became a priority. Our dedicated board members tacitly accepted my taking the proverbial bull by the horns, although a more fitting analogy would be to refer to a hibernating bear, dragged from its cave by the ears. In normal times I would have worked closely with advisory committees to make decisions. That, however, would have taken more time.
  • As for the future, it is always uncertain. Fortunately, for the moment, our staff is back to near full capacity, though the normal jitters remain. My behavior, and I imagine that of other EDs, has returned to patience and protocols, traditions and treading lightly. We are cautiously optimistic that the economy, which, as it turns out, is the world economy, will right itself so that compassion, philanthropy and good works will continue as a hallmark of our communities in Arizona and beyond.
  • We are grateful for everyone and every entity that helped our work providing court-friendly legal services and social and court-ordered mental health services (counseling, therapeutic intervention, etc.) to continue.

Best of luck and hard work to all in 2013. I discovered both come easier when our efforts are our passion as well as our mission.

Donnalee Sarda is a state licensed counselor, having achieved her master's in counseling psychology from Arizona State University in 1996. Through a partial scholarship, she received a professional certificate in Nonprofit Management from the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Innovation in May, 2010. She is executive director of Defenders of Children, a 50lc(3) organization working statewide as child advocates for abused and allegedly abused children and their families. For more information, visit


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