We all know that nonprofit organizations provide critical services to address many pressing social problems in this country. Across America, there are almost two million nonprofits striving to improve the quality of life in some way for some community. Yet, year after year, research shows that the same social problems nonprofits are working to eradicate aren’t getting any better. We are still living in a country where children go to bed hungry, where millions of people can’t even go to the doctor because they don’t have health insurance, where we are fighting a war against homelessness with no end in sight.
So where are we going wrong? The answer is not that we need more new nonprofits. Rather, it’s becoming painfully clear that existing nonprofits need to get better at what they do to make a greater impact on populations in need. Right now, especially as the country falls on hard economic times, there needs to be an urgent call for more effective nonprofit organizations. Clara Miller and the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s recent press remarks confirm that there are hard times ahead and we need to prepare our organizations for a period of financial uncertainty. And it sounds like there’s no time like the present to focus on building the capacity of your nonprofit to withstand the changing landscape. The Alliance for Nonprofit Management defines capacity building as the “process of developing and strengthening the skills, instincts, abilities, processes and resources that organizations and communities need to survive, adapt, and thrive in the fast-changing world.” Common areas of building capacity in nonprofits include: leadership development, fundraising, board development, strategic planning, marketing, evaluation, and financial management. However, with limited time and resources, most nonprofits miss the mark when it comes to having these systems in place to make them competitive in the eyes of donors; they fail to elicit the kind of community support needed to fulfill their missions. But we can see how being well prepared can help the best nonprofits in getting their piece of the pie no matter what the economic state of the nation.
Because no matter the size or age of the organization, there are similarities regarding the need for increased capacity at all levels. Organizations that are 20 years old with renowned programs and charismatic leaders—as well as start-up nonprofits—need adequate infrastructure to sustain their activities. As do-gooders, we rarely get the opportunity, what with time constraints or financial pressures, to think with a long-term lens about the organizations we support so strongly. The nonprofit sector, though, is at major risk in times like these, when the economy takes a downturn. When money is tight, government scales back essential funding and services to help citizens in need. And the business sector cuts back community spending to make sure they end the year in the black. As a result of people having to struggle to make ends meet, nonprofits will be asked to step up and do more with less for the least fortunate in the community. Staff will be stretched thin, and resources will become even scarcer as demands grow for services in every community in the nation. Right now, everyone should be asking provocative questions: What can we do to change the climate for essential agencies in this country? How can we ensure that great programs don’t shut down because they’re not prepared for a recession? As an example, communities in Boston and Maryland have newly instituted programs to help nonprofits improve their organizations and navigate change. Somehow we’ve got to prioritize long-range planning and sustainability in the midst of delivering programs to those in need. Building capacity in our organizations is the only mechanism by which nonprofits can be preserved, and we’ve got a long way to go.
Rosetta Thurman is an emerging nonprofit leader of color working and living in the Washington, DC area. She holds a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and blogs about nonprofit leadership and management issues at Perspectives From the Pipeline.