What do pooper-scoopers at the circus have in common with the individuals who run nonprofit organizations in our region? Plenty. There are more than 3,500 nonprofit organizations in Pima County and since 2008, when the economy slid down the toilet, it is the nonprofits that have tried desperately to pick up the &%#@ that all of the cuts have dumped on way too many human lives.
With the economic downturn, corporate giving shriveled, wealthy individuals and foundations scaled back on philanthropy and state and federal grants became scarcer. Unfortunately, the humans impacted by the diminished economy, try as they might, could not cut to nothing their own hunger or their need for a job, roof, quality education and health care.
Call in the nonprofits.
Since 2008, nonprofits in the region have worked to respond to the growing human need. During this time, philanthropic giving from all sectors dropped, putting a big squeeze on the nonprofit sector that depends on the generosity and investment of individuals, corporations, governments and foundations.
Simultaneous to the loss of funding, or maybe because funding is more scarce, there has been a steep growth in demanding accountability for the smaller dollars being invested in the nonprofit sector. This trend squeezes the sector to try to make it account for the fewer pennies spent while also trying to quantify that the enormous missions all nonprofits live by are being met. It’s sort of like hopping on one foot with both hands tied behind the back and sandbags glued to each shoulder.
Saddled as nonprofits are with diminished funds and greater demands for accountability, you’ve got to give it to them for not shying away from dealing with nasty problems like hunger, abused kids, low-quality education and inadequate jobs and housing. They do their work while being required to fill out more forms than the IRS, and trying to come up with explicit proof and hard data that their $400,000 budgets (on good days) are solving the deep and enduring problems caused by the recession. Perhaps we are asking a bit too much.
According to Clint Mabie, head of the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona, approximately 73 percent of nonprofit organizations in the region have less than six months of operating reserves. “It doesn’t mean they’re not doing great work or are not operationally sustainable,” Mabie told the Arizona Daily Star, “They just have a gap in cash.”
“A gap in cash,” is a major understatement. With so few funders in our region and so much need, gaps in cash are the norm. To help, CFSAZ has set up The Nonprofit Loan Fund for the 73 percent of our nonprofits with short-term cash needs. As Mabie told the Star, “The purpose of the loan is not to save organizations that are operationally in a tough situation. It’s to provide that cash flow to organizations that are being run well, and that’s a big difference.”
Being “run well” is a huge challenge for any organization with less than six months cash in the bank. And taking on debt does not seem like a long-term solution. What is needed is a more realistic examination of the myriad ways the 2008 economic collapse impacted the nonprofit sector.
With the recession easing, leaders need to re-examine the double whammy that our nonprofit sector has suffered. It has been obvious in tracking the budget battles at the state legislature that the needs served by nonprofits are not going away. With 40 percent of Arizona families living at or near the poverty line, and with our schools suffering under six solid years of extreme cuts, our region is at tilt. The 3,500 nonprofits in Pima County do not have enough scoopers to clean up all of the mess.
Nonprofits are vital to the future of the region, and they work hard to fill the aching chasm opened by the 2008 recession that swallowed so many people who cannot find jobs that pay a livable wage and have no government or nonprofit safety net to assist them until they do find work.
In our post-2008 world, it is time to call a time-out on demanding corporate-level accountability until philanthropic dollars again begin to flow. A lot more partnership, realism and compassion and fewer unwieldy demands would go a long way in boosting the region’s most compassionate organizations.