For each of the past three years, Nonprofit Finance Fund has conducted a nonprofit ‘State of the Sector’ survey. We just finished analyzing this year’s results, and I am struck by a few things.
First, I am grateful that nearly 2000 nonprofit leaders recognized the importance of sharing their stories, and took the time to do so. Their collective voice shows a sector that is resilient, creative, and proud of what it has been able to achieve in such challenging circumstances. Yet there is also a warning contained in the results, one intended to send a powerful wake-up call to all of us who support and rely on the nonprofit sector. Respondents told us they are stretched thin and performing acts of extraordinary financial courage in order to keep providing services. Implicit in some messages—and explicit in others—is that the current situation is unsustainable. Either nonprofit leaders get more support, or they will be forced to shut down vital programs—or entire organizations. In a country where nonprofits comprise much of the social safety net, this endangers our most vulnerable neighbors.
I am struck by the big picture, but I am moved by some of the individual stories. Most of the survey questions were multiple choice, but, when given the chance, many respondents wrote substantive replies to questions like ‘what are you most proud of about how your organization responded to 2010 financial conditions’ and ‘if you could ask funders to do one thing differently to better help your organization, what would it be?’ Some responses showed healthy adjustments, ones that are likely to benefit the organization long-term, such as monthly financial check-ins, scenario planning, or strategic partnerships. Others showed a sector too often on the financial brink: one executive director took a second mortgage on her home when state contracts didn’t deliver promised payments. ALL responses demonstrate a sector of people who are passionate about their missions, and who will go to great lengths to sustain those missions.
The creativity, passion and resilience are awe-inspiring—and necessary—as there will never be enough money to support all the worthy causes. Yet I am also reminded of the idiom: ‘Give an inch, and they’ll take a mile.’ The voices in our survey come from people who didn’t have inches to give, yet the miles have already been extracted. I worry that, unless something changes, fewer and fewer organizations will be able to go the distance.