Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

May 2, 2011

A wake-up call for nonprofits


By Todd Cohen

Nonprofits no longer can afford not to get their act together quickly.

The violation of the U.S. economy by a greedy gang of financial-services and housing-industry thugs has brutalized nonprofits and the people and places in need they serve.

And as a continuing series of surveys and reports shows, nonprofits themselves are strained to the breaking point by the economic crisis, squeezed between rising demand for services and tighter sources of revenue, particularly from government grants, contracts and fees for services.

The result is grim indeed: The most vulnerable among us are hurting and at risk of even greater pain, and many of the nonprofits that exist to serve them are at risk of shutting down.

Elected officials, lawmakers and politicians, always quick to pander to voters, are looking for ways to cut funding to safety-net social programs and to boost taxes and other fees to nonprofits.

Consider a handful of recent surveys.

An online survey by Mary Kay of 672 domestic-violence shelter across the U.S. found domestic violence had grown for the third straight year, with three of four shelters attributing the increase to financial issues, while abuse is more severe, children are significantly affected, shelters are reducing services and eliminating staff positions, and government cutbacks are hurting shelters’ ability to help survivors.

And a survey by the Johns Hopkins Listening Post Project says local governments have imposed taxes and fees on a big share of nonprofits in recent years, and now are planning for increases that could hurt nonprofits and local governments alike.

But a third survey, commissioned by child-advocacy group First Focus, shows that Americans are not as dumb as government officials and politicians seem to think they are.

According to the phone survey of over 1,000 likely 2012 voters, 58 percent of voters believe the lives of children in America have gotten worse in the last 10 years, and children’s programs are most important to voters relative to other programs facing potential government funding cuts.

In the trenches of America, nonprofits are struggling to reinvent themselves, address their communities’ urgent needs and cope with politicians on the make for votes with ham-fisted tax cuts.

The huge challenge for nonprofits is stick to their mission, create an organizational culture that values and embraces the connection between their mission and the larger needs of the community, and help prospective donors see the critical link between the causes they care about, the mission of the organization and the needs of the community.

While it is hard enough for them these days to deliver their services and pay their bills, nonprofits also need to be taking on the fundamental task of remaking themselves to survive and thrive in a radically different, rapidly changing marketplace.

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