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Changing the Paradigm to Meet Community Need

By Kate Golden on November 20, 2008No Comment

When leaders from New York’s nonprofit, business, and public sectors convened yesterday to discuss the impact of city budget cuts and decreased grants and donations on the area’s nonprofits, concerned philanthropy professionals from across the city packed a midtown Manhattan auditorium to hear what they had to say.  The forum, co-hosted by Foundation Center, NYRAG, the United Way of New York City, and Citi, provoked from all panelists and speakers the sentiment that now, more than ever, collaboration is critical.  Or as Linda Gibbs, Deputy Mayor for Health & Human Services succinctly put it, “we won’t get results if we’re factionalized.”  While suggestions for achieving such collaboration ranged from the practical (consolidate back office services to improve efficiencies) to the impractical (a $25 billion Distressed Nonprofit Fund created through the liquidation of foundation assets), they all underscored the distress, as well as the opportunity, to be found in the current economic crisis.

On the distress side:

  • Paul Light, Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service at NYU Wagner, believes that 100,000 nonprofits will close down in the next two years, including at least one big brand organization.
  • Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of Harlem’s Children Zone, compared the impending economic storm to that of Hurricane Katrina, and reminded the audience that the challenge will be to address the needs of the “new poor” – those who have recently lost their jobs or homes – without forgetting the “old poor” – those for whom aid has never been more critical.
  • Deputy Mayor Gibbs told the audience that she has had to ask Directors to make targeted cuts in agency budgets, sometimes resulting in complete program elimination. 
  • Bradford Smith, President of the Foundation Center, reminded those in attendance that the depth of the global recession has not yet been discerned.

But as Gordon Campbell, President and CEO of United Way of New York City, highlighted in his role as moderator when he quoted our country’s next Chief of Staff, crisis also presents the opportunity to do important things that you would have otherwise avoided.   

 Among the opportunities suggested: 

  • Stephanie Palmer, Executive Director of the New York Mission Society, cited an example her organization is undertaking this year to cut down on expenses:  the streamlining of its Annual Report to the bare essentials.  She urged attendees to take advantage of the current climate in making similar changes to their organizations. 
  • Phillip Henderson, President of the Surdna Foundation, reminded the audience that there is great hope and excitement with the coming of a new administration.  He advised the nonprofits in the room to cultivate and strengthen their relationships with individual donors during this time, as they are a reliable source of unrestricted revenue, and demonstrate to other funders a real sign of institutional strength.
  • Paul Light appealed to the foundation officials in the room when he asked “if foundations can’t raise their annual payout 2% at this time, why do you exist?”   And further pressed the issue by claiming that if they don’t voluntarily raise it, Congress will legislate it for them. 
  • Clara Miller, President and CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, pointed out that “there is a downside to stability – institutions can become calcified.”  In exploring best practices, there is opportunity for organizations to look outside themselves, to seek ideas from, for example, the technological solutions that the Obama campaign harnessed.   

When nonprofits view each other only as competitors, they lose sight of the common purpose to which they all are working so hard toward.   At a time when competition for donor dollars will be fierce, it is reassuring to hear a call for collaboration and cooperation among sector leaders, who are, after all, in the trenches together.  Only time will tell if this crisis encourages the sharing of information, resources, and expertise that it appears to demand.  Perhaps the sector will emerge stronger because of it. 

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