Historians can address this question with greater certainty, but I don’t think it was ever the case that nonprofit organizations were expected to sit rouged and powdered, waiting at the window for their financial suitors to come calling. Whether chartered by wealthy donors or not, it was always assumed they would walk the streets a bit, hustling a buck here, a buck there, to support their operations.
The amount of hustling most nonprofits do just to keep the lights on has gotten out of hand.
From the outside, the sector looks pretty healthy, financially. A recent MSNBC article, for example, reports on the sector’s increasing economic clout:
Spurred by a growing number of global conflicts, increased outsourcing of aid work by Western governments and the boom in private philanthropy, nongovernmental organizations like Oxfam have become big businesses. The Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project at Johns Hopkins University recently studied 37 nations and found total operating expenditures in 2002 of $1.6 trillion. The sector is dominated by charity schools and hospitals, which account for 57 percent of the expenditures, and includes everything from soup kitchens to professional associations, as well as the fast-growing budgets of aid-cum-activist NGOs, some of which now spend more than $1 billion a year.
The article points out that while total employment in the United States fell between 2001 and 2004, the number of jobs in the nonprofit sector grew by two percent to four percent a year. With the increasing professionalization of the field, more and more MBAs are taking the reins and increasing numbers of charities are being run as businesses.
From inside the sector, I see all but the largest nonprofits struggling to make ends meet. For years, those of us who work in the foundation field have heard nonprofit leaders lament the difficulty of fundraising, yet few of us have helped our grantees acquire or increase this capacity. (Here’s a typical excuse: “That’s just part of the cost of doing business: deal with it.”)
We want to support nonprofit executive directors in their work, and yet how many times and in how many ways do they need to tell us that what keeps them up at night is worries about money?