With our state of the sector survey in full swing, we’re already taking a look at early responses.  Thanks to the organizations who have weighed in so far, some important themes are already  emerging in the qualitative responses. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring some stories survey respondents have shared with us in discussing the challenges their organizations faced in 2012, and how they responded to those challenges. Please do take the survey and share your own perspective!

Estimates indicate that, by 2050, the number of people 65 or older will have grown by 135% since the start of the millennium, rising  from 12.7% to 20.3% of the total population. As quality of life and health care improve in the United States, we are also living longer. Over the last thirty years, the number of people 90 years old or above has tripled, according to the US Census.

In this year’s survey, nonprofits are sharing stories about the impact of these changing demographics on several dimensions of the nonprofit enterprise including programs and services and human, social, and financial capital.

Increased demand

Doctors and nurses are preparing for new ways of delivering care to older patients with multiple chronic illnesses, while government still struggles for a solution to the oncoming financial issues facing the Social Security and health care systems. Says one survey respondent working in the field of health care education: “Our health care system is becoming increasingly fatigued, strained by a physician shortage, retiring practitioners and a wave of aging baby boomers placing a tremendous strain on the infrastructure’s ability to handle the increased patient load. The bottom line: we need more physicians and health-care professionals…[Our organization] is stepping up to meet the needs of our community by increasing our class size and number of graduates by 36% from 2009 to 2017.”  

Changing demand

In responding to this demographic trend, one Human Services survey respondent observes that organizations providing elder care will see an increasing need to expand the breadth and types of services they offer in order to help older adults age in place. Individuals will need services to grow and change with them, as they evolve through different stages of need, requiring nonprofits to take a deeper role across the spectrum of care-giving activities:  “We serve the elderly, keeping them safe in their own homes.  As they continue to live longer, their needs rise. Thus our expenses rise to assist them,” she notes. “Example:  a client arrives at age 70, and we provide transportation as needed. Flash forward 14 years, and our typical client is 84 and lives alone.  She/he now needs hot meals and light housekeeping. Flash forward another 10 years, and that same client will need help with bathing, additional housekeeping, a phone pal, minor home repairs, and emergency assistance for medical service payments.”  Economic stress has shifted the demand profile as well.  An Oregon-based healthcare organization reports: “The number of seniors who will need our meal service is increasing exponentially as the Baby Boomers turn 60. The age group 60-69 is our fastest growing, because they have been hardest hit by economic downturn and forced early retirement. We need to develop a comprehensive funding plan so we aren't scrambling to make our budget each year, but have a fund that provides enough interest to help pay for increased programming.”

Shifting donor base

The aging population also presents a challenge to organizations’ financial capital. Several noted that many of their individual donors are above retirement age. With government funding on the decline, organizations are tasked with finding new ways develop reliable revenue from a broader spectrum of donors. Notes one Human Services survey respondent: “The greatest challenge is pulling in a younger donor base to replace an aging donor base. We are using social media, event planning, and numerous marketing strategies to tell our story better to a younger constituency.” This raises some additional questions: in the age continuum, when does involvement in philanthropy actually begin? Are the current generations of youth less involved in social issues?  Are they less wealthy than their parents were? Or, do people typically begin making philanthropic contributions after a certain life stage?

Shifting customers

Another area of financial concern is earned revenue. For many Arts & Culture organizations, the actual end users of services—the buyers of performance tickets and the audience constituency—are predominantly older.  “Our audience is getting older,” says one Arts & Culture Respondent.  “Most people who have expendable income are aging...” For arts organizations, this raises interesting questions around how the making and sharing of art evolves over time. As a result of its ongoing audience research, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, a participant in NFF's Leading for the Future Initiative (LFF), identified engaging young adults as a key priority. With change capital from LFF, Steppenwolf sought to deepen its understanding of young, culturally active audiences and of young theater talent to develop new types of programming, appropriate pricing models and space designs with younger community members in mind.

Losing knowledge

The aging population is also affecting how nonprofits must manage and make decisions around human capital, with several organizations noting that aging staff and volunteers who may be retiring from the workforce were also a concern. In connecting with the next generation of nonprofit leaders, how will we ensure that the right kinds of cross- generational knowledge transfer happen between seasoned nonprofit leaders and younger staff? On the other hand, with people living longer and unable to retire, given the recent economic losses, how can we make space for youth in the job market while also protecting individuals in the work force from age discrimination?

These survey respondents raised some interesting questions about the far-reaching effects of demographic patterns and how they shape the needs of our communities. Nonprofits are not only expected to address these social needs. They are also often expected to be ahead of the curve, rapidly preparing for societal changes and flexibly adjusting their programs to be ready to serve each and every one of us as soon as we need it. But how can they do more, think more, and plan more with even fewer resources available?

The 2013 Sector Survey is still open through February 18th.  Please take 10 minutes to tell us how your organization is doing.