By Valyrie Laedlein, CRE Co-Director - Those of you accustomed to visiting this website know that CRE exists to support nonprofit organizations in becoming stronger and more effective in their work to fight poverty and advance social justice. So it came as a bit of a shocker to hear the director of a foundation who is a significant supporter of social services and nonprofit capacity building say in a meeting last week that nonprofit organizations are becoming increasingly “invisible.”He explained that the New York City Mayor’s office and City agencies – and for that matter many private foundations – focus on contracting for programs. That is to say, programs delivered to best effect at the best price. What makes for an effective program, managed at peak efficiency, is not the concern of public or most private funders. Hence, specific interest in, or concern for, the organizations that deliver those programs is obviated.
My colleagues and I at CRE haven’t quite embraced this point of view yet. We’d certainly affirm that unless an organization is capable of delivering a program that gets results and can do so efficiently, it shouldn’t be funded. But we also recognize that organizations operating with extremely slim margins, high levels of accountability, delays in government reimbursements, and declining levels of public and private support, are often compromised in their ability to do so – and placed at serious risk of shutting their doors. I’ve been engaged in the process of supporting one agency’s board of directors as it decided to end operations, and yesterday I met with another board who is debating the same question of whether it can continue to operate as an independent entity or not. A major funder of theirs has essentially yanked support because it feels the organization is too focused and there’s not potential to “go to scale.”
Now what happens?
Should we be content that those programs fold, or at best that a large city-wide agency comes to absorb programming? Does community leadership of programs and organizations matter, or can any well-run, scaled organization take over a program and deliver what the community needs, regardless of where the agency is based or who leads it?
I worry – no, actually, I’m devastated - about what I see happening among CRE’s clients. The mindset of scarcity has consumed civil society and constraints in available resources to build that society have contributed to a set of assumptions now held by government and a distinct number of private funders that scale must trump all. It seems no longer to matter that an organization is by the community and for the community – or that the rise of community-driven leaders and institutions represents a significant stage in the process of community development.
In a city of communities – as defined by geography, affiliation, ethnicity and other - community institutions DO matter. If, and when, those institutions become invisible, we will have taken a giant step backwards and begun to undermine our progress in building community self-determination, which has been a bedrock of movement-building since the 1960s.
This moment seems to require new ways of thinking about our institutions and a new willingness to reconfigure them to retain community ownership. Like never before, boards and nonprofit leaders need to think about forging new relationships with similarly-situated partners – combining forces to build and maintain viable community-led organizations that will retain the qualities of and a commitment to community voice, direction, and self-determination. This is hard work that will challenge nonprofit leaders and their fundamental assumptions about defending their organizations. It will require that we shift our paradigm to focus on a goal that’s greater than preserving any single organization, in the interest of assuring the success and sustainability of key organizations that will be institutions capable of making change happen through services and advocacy for the community and by the community.
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