Friday, July 7, 2017

Nonprofits: Saviors or Slackers?

In today's public discourse, nonprofits are frequently portrayed as white knights that can provide all the social services the country needs -- or unprincipled villains who waste government funds. 

So: saviors or slackers? Here are some of the misperceptions that are floating out there:
  • Nonprofits don't pay taxes. The fact is that while nonprofits are exempt from standard property tax bills, they absolutely pay sales tax, payroll tax, and special property tax assessments.
  • Nonprofits pay their CEOs exorbitant salaries. Many big national organizations do pay salaries in the six-digit range, though these salaries rarely compare with corporate salaries in the for-profit sector. But 66.4% of nonprofits have annual budgets under $500,000; their employees are paid modest salaries and put in many extra hours of unpaid time just because they care about their nonprofit mission.
  • Nonprofits are rolling in government and grant money - and wasting it. Actually, most funding for nonprofits (80% according to the Urban Institute) now comes from earned income. Plus government and foundation funding comes with extensive restrictions, paperwork, and reporting - and rarely covers the full cost of programs.
  • Nonprofits have the capacity to do everything that government does, just better and cheaper. Nope. The time when small community based nonprofits with volunteer staff could tackle big issues like poverty, unemployment, and childcare without government support is long gone.
  • Nonprofits are rife with scandal. Media reports of misbehavior in the nonprofit sector, from sexual abuse to gross fiscal mismanagement, make great headlines but don't actually reflect the solid grassroots work that most nonprofits do.
  • Nonprofits have simply found a sneaky way to make big profits without any public benefit. There are indeed so-called nonprofit hospitals out there making lots of money without using it directly to benefit their community. But it's not the norm. Most nonprofits are barely squeaking by financially.
  • Nonprofits can function with all volunteer workers. Nonprofits do indeed rely on volunteer labor 25.3% of American adults volunteer over 8 billion hours (valued at $175 billion) each year. But with increasing demands both in terms of programs and governance, the sector has moved towards professionalism, and it's not going back.
  • Nonprofits need more oversight. Yes and no - given that the NHL, designated hate groups, and faith-based agencies owning property not used for faith-based purposes have nonprofit status, I actually believe there should be more oversight in the approval process. But the amount of scrutiny of nonprofits has increased significantly since the 1970's, and with this scrutiny has come accounting and legal requirements that are already a significant burden on small agencies.
Nonprofits provide over $900 billion dollars to the economy (5.4% of GDP) and employ over 11 million people (10% of our workforce); But they cannot take the place of government services. We can't go back to that golden-tinged past of volunteer-run organizations working out of church basements. For better or for worse, the world and the nonprofit sector have changed.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Seven Ways to Energize and Engage Your Supporters

Okay - so you're asking folks for donations. But are you also asking them to get actively involved? Here are seven ways you can invite them to participate:
  • Ask them for feedback. Send out a survey, soliciting suggestions about your programs and services. Invite comments through an organizational blog. Hold an open public forum. Have personal meetings with key donors and stakeholders. Thank them for their feedback, incorporate ideas that make sense (asking them to help out as you do so!), and quietly discard those completely off-the-wall suggestions.
  • Get them to follow you on social media. Include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat - wherever your organization has a presence. And be sure to ask them to share your posts with their networks.
  • Ask them to take an action. Right now, people really want to feel they are doing something to make a difference. Ask them to sign a petition, forward an email, and/or make a phone call about an important issue that is consonant with your mission. If you're an arts organization, ask them to support funding for the NEA. If you serve kids, ask them to support funding for afterschool programs. If yours is an environmental agency or you work with immigrants, there are so many bills out there to oppose. And everyone can be urging Members of Congress to uphold the Johnson Amendment.
  • Invite them to volunteer. Are you publicizing volunteer opportunities on your website and enewslettersIf not, start now. Take the time to brainstorm ways you can incorporate volunteers. This could be assisting with senior programs, making phone calls, maintaining your outdoor space, selling refreshments at an event. Schedule an annual volunteer day with lunch provided, and take photos to post on your website.
  • Solicit their expertise. Do you need some advice about personnel issues? Help proofreading? Someone with technical know-how who can evaluate your website? The answers to a couple of quick legal questions? There are lots of retired folks out there who are happy to help nonprofits; you just have to ask.
  • Ask them to join a committee. One of the best ways to get folks involved is through an ad hoc committee - one with a specific focus and a short time frame. Could be a fundraising campaign, brainstorming about programs, or a review of your policy manual.
  • Invite them join your board. Everyone who volunteers time and expertise is a potential new board member. Keep a list, stay in touch, and if they are the right fit, ask them to join.
Volunteering is fun - it makes people feel good. And volunteers are more likely to make charitable gifts, because they feel personally invested. Plus you're broadening your networks, lightening your staff load, and strengthening your organizational capacity. It's a win-win.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Nonprofits in Trump Land: So Many Questions

There are so many questions about the impact of these complicated political times on the nonprofit sector:

Re the relationship between government and nonprofits:
  • Will this administration discard the nonprofit/government partnership forged in the 1960's to provide direct federal funding for social services? There has long been a push/pull between conservatives who believe the less government the better (and the only good nonprofit is a religious one) vs. progressives who feel government has a moral imperative to support social services. Right now the balance looks to be tipping conservative.
Re the impact of new government policies on clients and communities:
  • How can those who serve immigrant populations find the resources to address pressing issues while being mindful of the risks for those populations and at the same time just what they normally do? There is tremendous fear in the immigrant community  - this means that nonprofits need to be cautious and discreet, as well as respond to whatever is the current crisis. This means more work for your already underpaid and overworked staff.
Re nonprofit finances and fundraising:
  • How would the proposed loss of funding for NPR, NEA, and NEH impact the sector and the nation? These agencies receive a minuscule amount of federal funds but support programs that serve rural, suburban, and urban communities throughout the country.
  • What will be the impact if funding is slashed for government programs that provide legal aid, food, health services, afterschool programs, environmental protection, and financial assistance for low-income folks? There will be tremendous pressure to maintain these programs - but no secure funding.
  • Will foundations that fund arts and community organizations prioritize political advocacy and decrease support? It's already happening. So your focus needs to be on increasing individual contributions big and small, encouraging monthly contributions, and winning back lapsed donors.
  • After streamlining services and budgets following the 2008 recession, will nonprofits survive another round that could be even more severe? Every nonprofit in the country rolled up its sleeves, upped its fundraising game, slashed budgets, and became more strategic back then - because they had to. There's not much left to cut. But note that agencies completely dependent on one primary source of funds, whether from the government or foundations, fared the worst. Hopefully, you learned that putting all your funding eggs in one basket is a recipe for disaster.
  • How will big national campaigns impact charitable giving to smaller nonprofits? Donations to the ACLU have increase 8,000%, and 1,000% for Planned Parenthood. Yet smaller organizations have also experienced donor bumps. And it is my experience that donors are capable of thinking both big and small, and being very loyal to organizations they care about. 
And now for our last question:
  • How can your organization make itself heard over the din of petitions and requests for money, and make the case that your nonprofit still matters? You do it the same way you always have - by staying in touch regularly and authentically, building relationships with donors, writing those thank you letters, and using every means at your disposal to reach out to your community for support.