Nonprofits: resilient, smart and frugal

Moderated by Rick Badie

Charities are struggling to fulfill missions in an economy that has created a greater demand for their services. Today, the president of the region’s United Way writes that nonprofits must be resilient, smart and frugal. Citing thin resources, the former chairman of a South Georgia charity that had to close calls for more collaboration among groups that strive to help people.

Nonprofits must remain resilient

By Milton J. Little Jr.

Lester Salamon, a noted expert on nonprofits, recently published the second edition of his work on American nonprofits. His visit last week to Atlanta for the Nonprofit Issues Forum prompts me to reflect on the state of local nonprofits.

For the second year in a row, charitable giving barely increased — by 0.9 percent — after inflation in 2011, according to a “Giving USA” report. Predictions are that it may take up to 10 years for the nonprofit sector to pick up the full steam that propelled us before the Great Recession. Charities continue to struggle with dwindling and depleted resources. Staff reductions and agency shut-downs are leaving vulnerable, low-income communities with less support.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Georgia Inc. was one of those casualties. The organization, which served the region more than 30 years, closed last year. This no doubt was a devastating blow to the community and families that relied on the agency. Unfortunately, this bitter melody continues to play out across the nation as nonprofits deal with a new fiscal reality.

United Way of Greater Atlanta is at a crossroads. Priorities are being reset by state and county leaders, businesses and others. Government budgets are being cut, municipalities are springing up, and lines separating us in what many call “inside the perimeter” and “outside the perimeter” are being drawn more rigidly. The distinction between the haves and have-nots is starker than ever. Nonprofits are feeling more of a pinch as we try to meet increased needs. We are faced with new social and political policies. The definition of government’s obligation to its citizens is being debated as support for social services seems to increasingly fall by the wayside.

This has made the community today very different from a decade ago. Despite the challenges facing nonprofits, we remain resilient.

It is often overlooked that greater Atlanta’s nonprofit sector is a significant contributor to the economy. It serves millions, enriches lives, saves taxpayer dollars, creates hope and builds futures. It’s time all sectors realize nonprofits’ value as critical components of a thriving economy and community. Nonprofits help define who we are.

Nonprofits must remain innovative, vigilant, dynamic and courageous. The days of “business as usual” are over. We can’t be afraid to take new approaches and we must be prepared to show how every donor and grant dollar makes the most impact. We have to hold ourselves accountable.

As the environment in which we operate is redefined, we redefine how we work as we seek to accomplish our missions and make Atlanta a better place.

We must engage in creative problem-solving. This not only makes us better, but also standard-bearers for values this community holds dear.

We are all in this together. It is only through us coming together as one community that we will be able to help this region rise again to its fullest potential — to be greater Atlanta.

Milton J. Little Jr. is president of the United Way of Greater Atlanta.

Reinvention is the key to survival

By James Nixon

I had the pleasure of serving as board chairman of Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Georgia Inc. (BBBSOSGA). With the help of donors, partners, family members and advocates, Big Brothers Big Sisters carefully matches at-risk youths with adult role models. Children enrolled in BBBS programs are more likely to improve in school and in their relationships with family and friends. They are less likely to skip school or use illegal drugs or alcohol. This is important as we work to produce productive members of society.

BBBSOSGA served a large area of southern Georgia with anchor cities including Tifton, Albany and Valdosta, among others. It helped mold thousands of lives and served our communities more than 30 years — until the economic downturn.

We definitely learned what the adage “no margin, no mission” meant. Over the years, we had been blessed by a supportive and able community, large grants and low overhead. We, just like most nonprofit organizations, had a great mission and purpose. Nonprofit organizations are not much different than for-profit businesses. We have the cost of getting the job done, getting our message heard and funding programs. The difference in businesses is that they are in it to make money. Nonprofit organizations must be, too. This is a lesson I learned quickly.

To run a mission-driven organization, you must run it like a business. There has to be a level of business acumen to sell your mission so that you can finance it. With that, you also have to have a sustainable operations plan. Getting by on annual giving campaigns, fundraisers and grants is no longer feasible. An organization also must have corporate and community partners. However, our historical supporters — the business community and individuals — have gone from needing write-offs to making ends meet. So where do you go next when the pool of supporters shrinks and everyone is competing for the same dollars? The answer is collaboration. Collaborating with other organizations is a lot harder than it seems. Each has its own pride and identity.

I have often wondered what would happen if we pooled our resources for the betterment of the common good. Why must every school, fraternity, sorority and church have its own tutoring, after-school or mentoring program? Why did we?

We must humble ourselves and remember the focus: saving our kids. Organizations like the United Way are more important than ever because they are a clearinghouse for nonprofits. However, their funding has been cut as well. One nonprofit can’t depend on another nonprofit to fund it solely.

So you ask, “How do I survive?”

You must consolidate or share resources and control expenses. A revelation we had after the last rally to keep our doors open is that it even costs to dissolve an organization. Success as a nonprofit is hard in these times. It is as important as ever to constantly reinvent yourself. It does take a village to raise funds.

James Nixon is the former board chair of Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Georgia Inc.

4 comments Add your comment

John Hilley

October 11th, 2012
3:34 pm

You are right to stress “resiliency” Mr. Little. With the rigorous measures by which foundations vet potential grantees for limited funding, the ongoing unstable economic environment and a changing policy climate means nonprofits continue to face new and unforeseen challenges that threaten their sustainability. Earlier this year I served on the Mayor’s Grant Review Committee for funding nonprofits in my city. Response after response to the question on the application concerning “What is your plan for sustainability?” was write more grants and hold another special event. Wrong answer…or wrong strategy! In order to succeed in this environment, nonprofits, and the foundations that support them, are in need of a new measure—a resiliency capacity measure –to gauge the nonprofit’s ability to adapt to these changing contexts. I believe the United Way and other grantors and nonprofit leaders should gauge and be gauged by a “resiliency capacity” measure — the ability of a nonprofit to adapt, change and thrive, while continuing to develop effective processes, structures, and programs in order to take action and achieve its mission. Adaptation is the measure and includes collaboration, business practices, cost controls…many of which are listed in this blog.


October 11th, 2012
2:18 pm

All of my charitable giving these days is to animal rescue/shelter organizations.

Many of us still remember the United Way CEO a few years ago who jettied around the world in the Concorde and travelled everywhere by limo; I believe the guy went to prison. Until nonprofits can overcome the perception that they actually use their funds for programs and not just more fundraising they’ll continue to struggle. They’re also competing against a widespread belief that the federal government, which we fund through taxes, already provides for most cradle to grave needs.

Rick Badie

October 11th, 2012
1:04 pm

Great idea, SAWB!


October 11th, 2012
12:49 pm

I have also long wondered why more charities do not coordinate their efforts or even simply merge together. This would significantly reduce the administrative cost and allow more of the funds to be spent on the core mission of the group. I suspect there is some pride and allegiance to people who started the charity for instance the Hosea Williams group which does some good, but often finds itself in various “challenges”. Why not merge this group with the Atlanta Food Bank and seek ways to coordinate their efforts while eliminating duplicate cost.