‘Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels.’

As someone who has worked my entire 35+ year professional career in nonprofit organizations in one size, shape, or flavor or another, I have often thought that what was said about the famous screen couple Fred and Ginger could be said about nonprofits and their for-profit industry counterparts: we do everything they do, but we do it backwards and in high heels. With fewer resources, hand-me-down office furniture, obsolete technology, smaller staffs, less pay, no profit motive, and often no paying customers, we manage to do some of the most difficult (and rewarding) work in the world.

During the last recession, one of my board members, a branch manager for a national bank, received a letter from his regional office. The letter said something to the effect of “Dear Branch Manager, In order to cut costs, we are downsizing our janitorial services contract. Enclosed please find a vacuum cleaner.”

When he shared this at one of our board meetings, I laughed uproariously and said “Welcome to my world.” At nonprofit organizations, we often empty our own trash bins. “Clean up on aisle 9” often means that someone—whoever is available, including, possibly, the CEO—needs to follow up behind a sick or calamitously messy client. At more than one black-tie-optional event, I’ve had to wield a plunger while wearing pearls and heels or send my tuxedo-clad husband out to the grocery store for the garbage bags the caterer ran out of.

Although we are often told that nonprofits need to be more like businesses, my thought during the last recession was that businesses were becoming more like nonprofits and that we had something to teach them. We were experts at operating on a shoe string.

Backwards and in heels.

Although we often do things the hard way or do them without the requisite tools—usually the result of chronic societal under investment in the sector—we are a sizable part, even a driving force, behind the economy.  I’ll say that again: we are a driving force behind the economy. This might seem like an odd assertion given that we don’t manufacture anything.

According to the John Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, we are 10.9% of the U.S. economic workforce, the third largest sector of the American economy, following only the retail and professional services sectors in terms of numbers employed.

Further, recent studies of employment during and following the most recent U.S. recession have found that employment in the nonprofit sector actually grew during the recession and in the years following it. In other words, while others cut jobs, we added them, picking up the slack of other industries. The American economy needs us.

We feed the hungry, house the homeless, tutor and educate children, youth, the unemployed,  illiterate adults, and people with learning differences. We provide health services to the uninsured and underinsured. We support research to end cruel diseases like ALS, cancer, lupus, and Alzheimer’s. We advocate for the rights of those who are discriminated against like refugees and those with disabilities. We fight to end smoking, drunk driving, homophobia, and opioid addition. We care for the environment and find homes for orphaned puppies. We organize recreation, promote positive social development, and fuel the imagination through the arts. We organize and protect religious expression and the lack thereof. We work to address all of society’s most difficult, intractable problems and we promote and advocate for all that is best within us.

So it is with both hope and great concern this week that I watch as state, federal, and local governments, private philanthropists, community foundations, groups like United Way, and state centers for nonprofit organizations all shift into gear to begin to address our growing economic crisis.

Governments are rightfully concerned about businesses, but the construct of “business” as a for-profit economic entity needs to be reconsidered. The only difference between “for-profit” businesses and “non-profit” businesses is who benefits from the bottom-line.  If one considers any nonprofit organization. There are almost always for-profit counterparts. Consider hospitals and universities.  Some are nonprofit; others for-profit. They do the same things. For-profit organizations share any bottom-line surplus with owners, partners, and share-holders. Non-profits—which can and should also make a “profit”—share any end-of-year budget surplus with the community, by reinvesting in the cause. No individual benefits from the bottom-line. The two types of organizations—though in practice one is much wealthier, more well-established, and more well-respected than the other—differ, technically only in that respect. They differ in who benefits from the bottom line, in what can be done with bottom-line surpluses.

So it is disappointing that nonprofits—approximately 75% of which have budgets of less than $1 million—are ineligible for support from government small business assistance programs. And when government looks at the companies and sectors that are “too big to fail,” the nonprofit sector and specific nonprofits are not among those considered.

Meanwhile, many philanthropic organizations are responding—again appropriately—with concern about individuals who are being hit by the current situation. There is a swell of concern and awareness about, for example, children who depend on schools as a food source. Many community foundation, United Ways, and state organizations of nonprofits are establishing super-fund type relief efforts to help people who need assistance. Much of that relief will flow through nonprofits that address basic needs.

But other non-profit organizations are hurting as well and, as our public health and economic crisis deepens, they will likely hurt far-worse. Most nonprofit theaters, museums, and zoos are shuttered, forgoing revenue. Many nonprofit camps have cancelled spring retreats and events and are looking at summer schedules with nail-biting anxiety. As but one example, one of my clients is an affiliate of Prevent Blindness. Almost all of the free-to-client sight-saving services the organization provides are offered through schools, senior centers, and homeless shelter. These services are largely shut-down right now, but will be needed in full force when the current crisis ends. The organization, after all, provides free vision screening for half of all of the pre-K and kindergarten age children in the state! Yet, its fundraising events have been cancelled and I don’t see (yet) where it will fall in the emergency relief efforts that are springing up around us.

We need to be careful to remember that some things which may not seem essential now will once again be essential in the future and take care to support and preserve those organizations and services now. Those of us who know how vital the nonprofit sector is—both now in this time of emergency—and in the aftermath as we all begin to again move forward need to be sure and advocate loudly and broadly for the good work we do.

We are vital partners, doing critical work, and we are a driving force behind the economy.  Yes, we may dance backwards and in heels. We are accustomed to doing more with less. But if we’re not on the dance floor when the music begins, we can’t do it at all.


Image Source: Bigstock.com/sportpoin74  Used with permission.

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