May 2, 2009

Are We Asking the Wrong Question?

I've been reporting from the road these past few weeks. I'm home now, thinking about a thread that's been there in a number of conversations among funders. There's some irony to this for me - makes me wonder about the monofocal glasses that many funders may be wearing. Here's the essence:
Six months ago: There are too many nonprofits.

Today: What can we do to make sure that no nonprofits go out of business in these economic times?

Missing Question: How can we best use our resources to increase the likelihood that change can occur and communities and people have the resilience to deal with the next set of challenges that come their way?
Don't get me wrong. I appreciate the work of nonprofit organizations. I'm part of a nonprofit organization. I get how challenging these economic times are for nonprofits.

The last time I heard the "what can we do to keep nonprofits from going under" conversation was the same day that GM announced that they were eliminating Pontiac from their product line and laying off 22,000 more people. Do you see the irony?

I spend my time thinking about funding that is not limited by the belief that non-profit service delivery is the vehicle - the only vehicle or even the most reliable vehicle - to take us where we want to go in our communities. I've spent a lot of time in distressed neighborhoods. And distressed neighborhoods are always full of nonprofits. It almost seems like the more there are, the more entrenched the distress. Chicken and egg? No, probably not. Nonprofits that provide services flock to distressed communities because that is where the need for services is most obvious - and where the case can be made for funding. These are needed services, good services.

But not the vehicle tor change and resilience. I believe that change comes from many places and in many ways, but that an essential ingredient to change that is sustainable has more to do with the people in a neighborhood than the services (aka nonprofits) in a neighborhood. And that maybe it's more about resilience than change. Let's address the problem now, but then build the strength and connectedness that equips a neighborhood to deal with the next one, whatever it is and whenever it comes along. That's why I'm so passionate about grassroots grantmaking and the funders who are wearing multi-focal lenses that allow them to look beyond investing in nonprofits to see opportunities for strategic investments that activate and strengthen residents and residents-led groups - the people and groups that are there and will be there, funding or no funding, doing what they do because of their own self-interest and their relationships with their neighbors.

Aren't these challenging economic times offering us the perfect opportunity to revisit some basic assumptions about what types of investments lead to change and resilience, and to readjust our funding portfolio accordingly?

1 comment:

  1. Hi Janis,
    I think you're on to something. I don't think we can count on NPs to be the source of community transformation, at least not too many of them. Over the past few months, the nonprofit community in Denver and along the front range has been engaged in a conversation about ends and means which bears some similarity to your thinking. There's a small but growing opinion around these parts that nonprofits have become entrenched in their means to the detriment of the most important community ends. Their actions are sometimes more in service to organizational identity and survival then compelling community vision and need. And in these circumstances, they become an unwitting player in status quo game of service provision and community maintenance rather than a catalyst for real transformation. We're hosting a dialogue on May 14 entitled " the relentless pursuit of results: nonprofits putting ends before means". We'll let you know how it goes.

    The Civic Canopy
    Denver, Colorado