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Building strong LGBT groups

Three major LGBT organizations in Milwaukee are undergoing leadership changes right now. Circumstances leading to the need for new directors vary in each case. Instead of speculating on what's gone right or wrong – all organizations face transitions from time to time – I'd rather address more broadly strategies for strengthening these important institutions so they are here to serve us for decades to come. 

Many nonprofit organizations, not just LGBT groups, are going through big transitions, primarily because of the contraction of funding sources. Nonprofits depend on government and foundation grants and corporate contributions and sponsorships to finance their services. The economic collapse has dramatically reduced charitable giving by foundations and businesses and led to huge government budget cuts.

One method some nonprofits are choosing to strengthen their financial position and ensure continuation of services is to merge with groups that have similar missions. The Task Force on Family Violence merged with the Sojourner Truth House shelter to become the Sojourner Family Peace Center. Two prominent groups that serve people with blindness merged into a new entity called Vision Forward. 

Through consolidation, such mergers can reduce duplication of services and expenses. Funding sources strongly encourage such mergers, although they can be difficult to achieve. Longstanding organizations have their own missions, boards, constituents and turfs. But the times are challenging, and unless some groups show more willingness to adapt they may find themselves out of business in the near future. This may be a practical option for some local LGBT groups facing leadership dilemmas or money crunches.

With less money to go around, organizations need to hire professional fundraisers with the expertise to implement both tried-and-true and innovative methods of raising money from more diverse funding sources. This is easier said than done, as professional fundraisers cost money, which creates a catch-22 for organizations with few resources. 

But the development arena has become specialized and is moving rapidly into digital and social networking media. Nonprofit leaders must recognize it as an essential investment. Effective fundraising is every nonprofit's engine for growth.

A fully engaged board of directors, membership base and volunteer corps are also critical to the success of any organization's mission. Boards need to have a balance of skill sets – in law, finance, human resources – to ensure proper governance. Ideally, board candidates should be drawn from currently active members or donors, "known" entities whose commitment is recognized by all. They should never be merely personal friends and rubber stamps for the executive director, although that is often the case.

Organizations that lose touch with their membership base or reduce their input into decision-making can drift away from their goals, leaving them with a weakened foundation in times of crisis. The failure to engage volunteers in tasks that match their skills and to reward them for their valuable labor is another opportunity lost. Continual cultivation of ideas and energy from these bases of support is necessary to build strength and renewal.

Finally, I think LGBT organizations lose steam when they forget the element of advocacy. Funders prefer to underwrite direct services, and confusion about the legal restrictions on nonprofits in terms of advocacy makes them shy away from it. In fact, the law limits political involvement, not issue advocacy, so groups can speak out and organize around all sorts of issues. Services help meet our community's needs. Advocacy fires up our base and helps us change the world.

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