Inside Philanthropy

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

June 29, 2009

Time for nonprofits to declare independence

By Todd Cohen

Nonprofits are society’s unsung heroes.

Sadly, however, many see themselves as victims and supplicants, or at least act as if they are.

Nonprofits are heroic because they address the symptoms and causes of urgent social and global problems that government and business cannot or will not take on.

Nonprofits work hard for little pay, continually are expected to do more with less, and face growing scrutiny and expectations from funders.

And in the current economic recession, with rising demand for services, nonprofits face growing pressure to reduce costs and increase their fundraising and impact.

With those kinds of seemingly intolerable working conditions and stress, people who work at nonprofits often feel alone, under siege and burned out.

They stick with it, however, because they care, and because they find fulfilling the job of making a difference and working with people in need and with other people who care.

Yet, needing revenue to meet their payroll and pay their rent, and fearing they lack the know-how to map a business strategy to sustain their organizations, they are too quick to swallow funders’ demands and consultants’ advice without critically questioning it.

Nonprofits are not victims and should not underestimate the knowledge of their staff and board, the value of their programs and services, the extent of their impact in the communities they serve, or their potential to generate even more contributed and earned income.

Rather than falling prey to the herd hysteria the recession has unleashed in the giving sector, nonprofits should treat the economic crisis as an opportunity to get back to basics and recognize the value and impact of the work they do and the untapped potential they possess to do more and do it better.

That means scrutinizing their mission, board, staff, operations and programs with brutal honesty.

It means using common sense to look for ways to improve their efficiency, impact, fundraising and communications.

And it means finding smart supporters and partners who care about their cause and understand that getting involved by making a donation, volunteering, serving on a board, collaborating or even merging requires recognizing the organization’s true needs and potential.

Nonprofits play an indispensable role in America, serving both as the safety net for the most vulnerable among us, and as the research-and-development arm to find ways to fix our biggest social and global problems.

America’s economic crisis has underscored nonprofits’ role and value, and compounded the challenges they face.

To fulfill their role, expand their value and meet those challenges, nonprofits must stop acting like victims and start thinking and working as independent and entrepreneurial agents for social change.


  • At 10:46 AM, Anonymous Naked Nonprofit said…

    You're right on! Except that there's no way to have funding without some kind of implicit or explicit requirements from funders. Anytime a nonprofit takes a stand for something it believes in, it's going to risk alienating donors. That's the issue that needs to be resolved for nonprofits to find true financial freedom.

    Naked Nonprofit


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