Can Nonprofit Organizations Afford to Operate Just Three-Quarters of The Year?

When formal schooling was first established, the nine-month calendar that most schools operated from supported to the 85 percent of Americans who were involved in agriculture, and climate control did not exist in school buildings. Today only about 3 percent of Americans are engaged in agriculture and most schools have air conditioning, yet the traditional school year still dominates.

We began to see a shift in public government fiscal calendars in the 60’s and 70’s.  Congress passed the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 which created the Congressional Budget Office and the current federal fiscal calendar.  The thinking was that this allowed Congress more time to arrive at a budget each year.  The Act outlines that on May 15th of each year Congress completes action on resolutions in the budget and then revisits these resolutions a week after Labor Day on new additions, which is five months later. I wonder if summer vacations have anything to do with this gap.

Additionally, state budget processes end in June and their new fiscal year begins in July each year.  The reason for this change is varied but it is suggested that public universities in the early 1960’s began the change to this calendar because the school is less busy during the summer months.  Soon state fiscal years followed suit.  This impacts the nonprofit sector because many nonprofit budgets follow the state budget cycle.  For many nonprofits, starting a new budget year aligns with the beginning of summer as the budget approval process is completed before the new fiscal year has begun.

Walk into any nonprofit during the summer and you witness a balancing act of summer vacation schedules.  Many offices have flexible summer schedules that allow alternate Fridays to be taken off.  A common phrase might be, “Let’s convene in early September when everyone is back in the office”.  For many nonprofits, summer becomes a grey area of productivity, essentially sprinting through the end of the fiscal year, having a summer lull and then charging back up in the early fall.  What this creates is the nonprofit summer loss.

Summer loss is not a new idea and in fact is something that is known and discussed in the education and youth development fields.  Time Magazine recently featured an extensive article on the subject, with the cover reading, “The Case against Summer Vacation”.  The article outlines research that many academics have entitled “summer learning loss” or the “summer slide”.  An additional 2002 report from Johns Hopkins Center for Summer Learning states that “a conservative estimate of lost instructional time is approximately two months or roughly 22 percent of the school year…. It’s common for teachers to spend at least a month re-teaching material that students have forgotten over the summer. That month of re-teaching eliminates a month that could have been spent on teaching new information and skills.”  While this outlines the impact of summer loss on children, there is also a summer loss, in productivity, in the nonprofit sector.  From a variety of standpoints, especially economic, the sector cannot afford this.

Nationally, there is a movement to prevent the summer slide among children.  I think the same movement should be created for the nonprofit sector.  While the movement to prevent summer learning loss in our children includes innovative summer programming and altering the academic calendar, the following suggestions follow similar suit and are designed to help non-profit leaders tackle this issue.

  • Summer Capacity Building —If the summer has become a “slower” period for your organization, use this time to specifically focus on building its capacity.  Look under the hood during this time and tinker with some infrastructure issues.  Dust off some of those fancy plans sitting on the shelf and start to implement.  While many use the late winter and early spring to get “bathing suit” ready, use the summer to have your organization do the same.
  • Organizational Shadowing—One of the common complaints I hear from nonprofit executives is that they don’t have time to network.  Most of my consulting often becomes sharing the best practices that I see to executives that are buried in their organizations.  Get yourself and your staff out of the office and go and look at other organizations.  Take a field trip to an organization that you admire.  Have your staff shadow practitioners that they admire but also in positions that are similar to theirs.  Imagine the conversation and organizational momentum that this could create in the organization.
  • Summer Reading—While you may not want to spend your summer reading schedule looking at nonprofit books, maybe reading just one won’t hurt.  Even better, have an organizational book club in which everyone in the organization reads the same book and discusses it.  I once had a board read a Jim Collins book together and couldn’t get them to stop using the word hedgehog.  This presented a nice cultural change for a previously slow-moving board.
  • Opening Up Philanthropy—One of the critical complaints against the philanthropic world is that they can be a little bit “closed door”.  The summer is also a slow period for philanthropy and one of the key areas when they might be helpful is in sharing the lessons they learned during the year, opening up their data and convening grantees around a summer Bar-B-Q.  Having philanthropy operate as a medium for the groups and areas they support during the summer could have a great impact.
  • Changing the Calendar—Like the educational world, do we need the three-months of summer lull or can we change the calendar to better aim productivity?  A movement to the calendar year might be one way to prevent a summer slide.

Nonprofit managers should be taking a top-level look at their human productivity throughout the year and then should begin finding solutions to their challenges.  One area has to be in nonprofit “summer slide”.

Read more stories by John Brothers.