2009: Glass Half-Full, With Qualifications

So, when it comes to 2009, I am generally finding myself to be a glass half-full kind of person. The tragic Christmas fire in Burnsville – rather than focus on faulty wiring and lack of sprinklers, why not also attend to the enormous generosity of the anonymous donor and countless others? But I do have two nagging concerns going into this new year.

My first concern is about small, especially new, nonprofit organizations. Resources for these nonprofits are likely to be harder to acquire as competition over a stagnant or even shrinking pie increases. There will also be pressures from a variety of funders, media, and perhaps some nonprofit support organizations to suggest merger as an efficient and strategic response for some of these smaller entities. Aside from the fact that these are more likely to be analogous to acquisitions than mergers, one of the problems is that small, new nonprofits are often sites of innovative programs; and, perhaps more importantly, they often draw attention to issues that have not yet made it onto the public’s agenda. Such was the case with battered women’s shelters in the 1970s [for current examples, check out the Social Venture Partners International web site]. An enduring hallmark of the US nonprofit sector is that these organizations serve "particularistic? interests; that is, they represent the interests of a minority of community members. One might criticize their narrow domains or missions, question whether they duplicate existing organizations, complain that they are often under-managed, and so forth, but turning our backs on these organizations and neglecting to work with them to improve management capacity and link them into broader networks is not in our long-term public interest.

My second concern has to do with a potential response by local governments to their horrendous financial outlooks. Perhaps using arguments of increased efficiencies and strategic thinking, will local governments seek out nonprofit organizations as partners to take over more local government programs and some of their public assets such as parks? This response is not necessarily a bad thing and presents a real opportunity for both parties (and the public) for collaboration and innovation. However, collaboration and innovation take time, resources, and hard-nosed analysis of real costs and benefits. It is just not enough to assume that off-loading public responsibilities in the face of financial crisis is either efficient or strategic. In our review of the literature on public collaborations, we conclude that "The normal expectation ought to be that success will be very difficult to achieve in cross-sector collaborations.?

While I remain cautiously optimistic about 2009, I urge us to carefully weigh responses and solutions to our economic crisis that involve the nonprofit sector. It is tough to argue against purportedly efficient or strategic solutions, but sometimes these solutions end up being neither.


"...will local governments seek out nonprofit organizations as partners to take over more local government programs and some of their public assets such as parks?"

My fear is that local and state governments will be forced to flat out cut services, leaving nonprofits with more to handle without formalized contracts or any sort of support from government agencies. I think the reductions to human services spending will likely have the biggest impact on nonprofits, either directly through reduced funding opportunities or indirectly by increasing case and work loads due to reduced access to state services.

A press release with more details on the 2008 unallotments can be found here: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2008/12/19_budget_cuts/release.pdf

In my opinion, these cuts were pretty devastating. Unfortunately, the next biennium doesn't look any brighter at this point. I just hope that everyone decides to focus on long term, constructive solutions instead of one-time fixes that will cause even more pain down the road.

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