I spent some time working for a social justice organization that launched a campaign with the slogan “A budget is a moral document.” We were involved in lots of memorable activities, but that phrase had a significant influence on me then and continues to be top of mind anytime I’m struggling with dollars, personally or at the station. What we do with our money says a great deal about what we truly value.
It’s budget time at NIPR. Our fiscal year ends September 30 and we begin again on October 1 and it’s a good idea to begin with an approved budget. Budgets are always challenging for nonprofits – if we’re passionate about the mission there’s always so much more we want to be doing for the people we serve and, of course, that takes funding. I happen to be of the optimistic type so I look at a hard-working staff and dedicated supporters and think we can fund more. That’s when a good board comes in handy, just to say “Really?”. And then we go back and look at it all again.
We have some added challenges when trying to improve and expand how we serve and do that within a reasonable budget because we’re servicing a large debt as well. So we budget for paying good staff, for our national programming from NPR and others, for keeping the equipment functioning so we aren’t just playing good radio inside our building, for maintaining our studios, and for all the expenses every business has . . . and then we budget for paying off the purchase of 94.1. Right now the service on that debt each month is about equal to one of the two payrolls we make each month. It’s a budget line on the cash budget that I certainly wish wasn’t there.
When I think about the moral issues of the NIPR budget – providing the service we say we provide, making sure people get paid (and paid fairly), keeping up our obligations for benefits, paying for things we buy in a timely manner, stewarding contributions with integrity – servicing debt certainly has a moral obligation to it. Figuring out how to do all that well within the constraints of the income we can expect isn’t easy. We’re dealing with cuts in funding from the state and from our federal support, still-cautious corporate support (although we are seeing improvement, thanks to faithful corporate partners and great staffing), and of course, the increase in cost of just about everything.
Last week was a week of sharpening the budgeting pencil and I’ve struggled with what every not for profit manager battles. Getting a realistic, balanced budget by decreasing expenses always means something suffers. For almost all of us, after this long economic nightmare, all the fluff was gone long ago. We’re operating lean and mean and sometimes ugly just to keep doing what we do, so to look at more cuts on the spending side means somebody loses. Let me be really clear that as passionate as I am about what we do at NIPR, we’re not the food bank, or a free clinic, or services to the handicapped or homeless or ill or endangered. I get that and I get that cutting a program on public radio doesn’t have the same devastating impact. (I do get tired and cranky, rarely delusional.) But cutting expenses does impact the product we deliver.
So the alternative is to improve the revenue side. And that’s when our moral document of a budget becomes a budget decision for our listeners, supporters, and corporate and community partners. I was encouraged this week when we sent out a plea to our closest partners – our current and past board members – asking for some additional support as we move into the final few weeks of this fiscal year. Thanks, all of you. And I know that to operate responsibly next year, we’re going to be doing a lot of asking.
As we move into full-blown planning for our fall pledge drive (October 16 – 24, I know you’ve been waiting to put it on your calendar. C’mon, it’s fun!), one of the things we are most hoping is that we can do our best job yet as we talk about the mission and our service to the community. We will need to be awesome at encouraging those who listen but don’t give to step up this year. It’s a huge part of the answer.
So as I continue to put numbers on the lines (and delete and try it again) to produce a solid, realistic, service-providing budget, we’ll be asking listeners to look at their budgets and see if there isn’t a line dedicated to investing in the programming they rely on. Seems like a kind of moral obligation to me. And it is, when all is said and done, revised and revamped, the only way we get to keep doing what we do.
Thanks for listening and supporting,