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    February 1, 2009

    Is Your Organization a Survivor, Freezer, of Self-Destructor?

    When I was ten years old, I went to a weekend retreat over Memorial Day for immigrant Russian children. I can't remember much about the weekend, but I do remember the afternoon we left. While the adults were running around getting everything and everyone ready to leave, we waited to get on the charter bus. Someone said, "if you are ready, go ahead and get on the bus."

    So a few of us girls piled on, maybe 5, 0r 6 of us. We had barely gotten on the bus, when it started rolling backwards down the hill it was parked on toward a small building at the bottom. There were no adults on the bus and the drive wasn't there either.

    I wouldn't say any of us had time to think. All I know is pretty soon I started yelling: "We are going to get off the bus. Start jumping off. Roll to the ground...Jump! Jump!" and one by one girls jumped off that bus. I jumped off last or second to last.

    We were all taken to the hospital and the worst injury any of us had was someone had to get a few stitches. The bus ended up rolling into the building at the bottom of the hill and from what I was told was pretty much intact, but you never know what might have happened.

    My reaction that was one of someone who is, as Ben Sherwood, author of "The Survivors Club", a book about how people who are "survivors" deal with adversity, that of 10% of the population that Mr. Sherwood identifies as having a "survivor" disposition. At no point in my ten-year-old life had I gone thru any kind of "this is what you do if a bus without a drive is rolling backwards down the hill training." Finding myself in such a situation, some instinct in me kicked into gear to get everyone off that bus.

    Mr. Sherwood recently talked about survivors, and the other 2 groups of people-"the freezers" and "self-destructors" (my name for them summarizing Mr. Sherwood's categories), on the Diane Rhem Show.

    According to Mr. Sherwood, when faced with an adverse situation, survivors spring into action. They "do something" to react to their circumstances. Then there are the "freezers"-80% of us. These people basically freeze up, get so overwhelmed by the situation they are in, they are unable to react quickly. Most of the girls who were on the bus with me froze up when the bus started rolling. They looked around at everyone, terrified like all of us were, waiting for someone to tell them what to do. When I started yelling "jump off the bus", they all did as I said. They jumped off.

    The final group, or "self-destructors" are people that do manage to act, but do the completely wrong thing. This is the person, who when a plane is going down in the movies, helpfully screams to his fellow terror-stricken passengers "we are all going to die!" On my bus, there was one girl who absolutely refused to jump. It all happened very quickly, but I pretty much pushed her to the front door and told her if she didn't jump off herself, I would push her off. Maybe it was karma, but this was the girl who ended up having to get stitches.

    Now according to Mr. Sherwood, he discovered in his research that much of this survivor, or lack thereof, reaction, is genetic. But even if you happen to be a freezer, Mr. Sherwood assures us, you can hone your reaction, train yourself to do the right thing in a given situation once you do manage to unfreeze .

    And just because you are a survivor, does not mean you will always do the right thing. This survivor apparently does the complete opposite of the 'I want to live' thing to do in the following situation: when the security alarm goes off, instead of barricading myself in the bedroom and calling the police, I go downstairs to investigate. So not the thing to do if you there was actually a burglars, according to Mr. Sherwood.

    As I listened to Mr. Sherwood, it occurred to me, that in times of crises of their own, organizations can also be divided into the survivors, freezers, and self-destructors categories, and I would imagine they break out across a similar 10-80-10% ration.

    Take the financial crisis for example: there are the survivors, the organizations that "hugged the monster", reaccessed and moved quickly to do whatever was needed to ensure the organization, at its core survived. These organizations, during good times, planned and rehearsed for the bad.

    Then there are the overwhelmed freezers. Having found themselves in the midst of economic collapse, they did nothing. They waited. They looked around for what everyone else was doing. And, if the organizations they were looking at were also freezers, well, it's not suprising we are asking ourselves: "how could so many get it so wrong?"

    Finally, there are the "self-destructors." Seeing the economic collapse around them, they embarked on a set of actions that instead of protecting the organizational core, dug them deeper and deeper into crisis (think the automakers building more and more SUV plants, when consumer sentiment was clearly shifting to smaller cars).

    For nonprofits, an organization whose leadership has grown and develops a "survivor" mentality at the core of the organization can be more a of a lifesaver than to most industries. We are, after all, dependent on the kindness of others. And when others are hurting financially, they are not going to be as kind.

    Even if your organization is not a survivor by "nature", happily, the genetics of a charity are easier to change than those of a human being. To be clear, changing an entire organization's organism could be a decades-long task, but if the recent hardships so many of our fellow do-gooders face teach us anything, we would rather be in the "survivors" category than anywhere else.

    As Mr. Sherwood points out, being a "survivor" does not guarantee survival, it just ups your chances.

    So, how do you figure out which camp your organization falls into? To start, ask yourself a few basic questions:

    1) When times are good, do we take the good times to prepare for a rainy day?
    2) How many rainy day plans do we have? Are they all dependant on one donor or one large corporate benefactor?
    3) If we find ourselves in a crisis we did not prepare for, how quickly to we react at an organizational level? Do we wait to see what our peers do, or do we lead the way?
    4) In times of past crisis, how have we come out?
    5) Who, at the organizational level, do we look to to lead us during a difficult time? If the answer is not someone at the very top of your organization, you should consider whether placing people in key decision-making positions who are not "survivors" by nature or aren't honing it otherwise, is a good decision.
    6) Are we proactively seeking out those who can help us prepare for future obstacles? How proactive are we in general?
    7) Are we actively self-destructing? Have we completely stopped prospecting for new donors? Did we decide to cut back across each level/department of our organization to a uniform number (all departments, cut 10%)? Have our most loyal donors stopped giving to us?

    For more information on how to survive life's challenges, both as an individual and as an organization, check out Mr. Sherwood's The Survivors, a whole website dedicated to, well, survival.

    1 comment:

    Andie said...

    Very reflective post. I think nonprofits should gear themselves to be "survivors". We never know what will happen tomorrow. But we shouldn't freeze up or hit the panic button. I believe there are other "survivors" out there who are willing to help "co-survivors" in the face of trouble such as a downturn in the economy.