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Ten Tips for Crisis Budget Management

I have handled a few work crises in my life, from taking over a military training unit that had failed an inspection and was in serious doldrums, to not one but several budget crises at My Place Of Work.

I was going to list ten things not to do during a budget crisis, but then realized that the first rule is…

1. Think positively. Try hard to think in “yes-terms” about what you will do, the actions you will take, and your short-range and long-range pictures. Effective crisis management takes place in the sweet spot between denial and defeatism.

2. Inform your community about what’s going on. The last time we had a budget crisis where I work, I masked it. That had two bad outcomes. First, the people using the resource had no idea, so they couldn’t participate in educating us about how important our resource was to them. Second, it meant my decisions weren’t serious long-term solutions for sustainability. Punishing users by cutting off services is self-defeating, but masking the effects of the cuts doesn’t give them the chance to see and feel and most significantly respond to crisis.

3. Have your contingency budget completed by Day 1 of the crisis. That’s to inform YOU of what’s going on. Work the budget from a worst-case scenario and stick by that until proven otherwise.

4. Let your team know what’s going on, and how it will affect them. I have one friend from outside LibraryLand who came back from a vacation in France to learn she was being laid off. She points out she would have made different decisions about how she spent money if she had known that before she planned the trip. Don’t worry about people jumping ship; they will or they won’t–and often people will ride out a crisis. A regular paycheck is a wondrous thing. But uncertainty is toxic to an organization–it’s far worse than bad news–while hiding the truth is simply unethical.

5. Let your stakeholders know what the impact of the budget cut is on your organization. Don’t assume they can infer the details, even if there is no evidence of fluff in your budget. Tell them where the cuts are and what that means to the services you provide.

6. Remain calm. You’ve got to stay healthy for yourself, your family, and for the organization; you don’t want your ticker giving out over this thing. You can think more clearly if you remain calm.

7. Treat every good suggestion with respect. It may not be feasible–people come up with all kinds of ideas during crisis–but sometimes the goofiest ideas have an element of merit. Plus it shows you’re listening.

8. Nevertheless–heed your managerial instincts about what seems dubious or even simply dumb (“We’ll run the reference desk with volunteers!”). I remember one library (I wasn’t the director, just a horrified bystander/junior admin) where a trustee recommended we use volunteers to clear snow from a huge library parking lot. You have achieved the pinnacle of managerial success when you can maintain your librarian smile during such a discussion. (For My Place Of Work, someone inevitably comes up with “free hosting.” Ask me sometime about how much free can cost you.)

9. Be gracious. Finger-pointing won’t help, so why do it? Besides, if you didn’t get the message before, this is clearly a good time to seek other sources of revenue, and how you interact with the source that has reduced its contribution will be noticed by potential funders.

10. Be firm with people and organizations that more than ever, your time is money. I am giving a talk soon where the logistics seemed squirrely, and I finally said, look, this is a precious day of time I could be using for fundraising, so if you can’t get it together to ensure that when I drive there the Internet connection is working and the projector is ready and the screen is set up, I need to cancel. That got their attention. All will be well.

10-again (A bonus remix tip). Be a tiny bit selfish. This is a mashup of the ten preceding points: make sure you don’t let your job eat you alive, and remember that your job isn’t you. Iin the Air Force, they showed us 12 O’Clock High as the iconic example of the over-identified manager (bless them, we were also treated to Young Frankenstein for examples of typical supervision challenges: “Put the candle BACK!”). Think also Diane Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist, living in what Roger Ebert calls a cocoon of obsession. I’ve met the obsessive library manager, and it’s scary. In the end, it’s not you, it’s not your family, it’s not your avocation, it’s not your spiritual sustenance–it’s a job. Maybe a great job, and one worth fighting for, but a job all the same.

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