Hard times for non-profits

This noon I have a meeting that at best will b uncomfortable. I serve on the board of a local nonprofit that has been wrestling with delinking revenues because of a wide variety of causes including decreasing governmental funding due to shifting priorities, decreases in local donations, partially due to chains in tax deductions, and other issues. The meeting is going to be uncomfortable because the organization can no longer afford its current staffing level. Loyal employees, who have sacrificed much to serve the organization will be without jobs. It isn’t the kind of decisions that any board likes to make. This particular organization is near and dear to my heart and I’ve invested a lot of dollars and a lot of time in trying to keep it going. Its essential mission will continue and the organization may be able to emerge from this crisis as a stronger, leaner and more focused institution - at least that is my hope as I approach this meeting.

We are not alone.

I’m a product of church camps. One camp in particular was my summer home for the first d25 years of my life. I was taken to that camp as an infant less than two months old when my mother served as camp nurse. We returned every year and I served as the manager of that camp for two years when I was a young adult. The experiences at that camp were very formative in my life. It is where I met my wife. It is where I experienced a sense of being called to the ministry. Now that camp is being sold by the church conference, which can no longer afford the continual cash subsidies that were required to keep it operating. There is a long backlog of deferred maintenance that they could not master. The decision to sell was painful and controversial. Now a group, mostly of former campers, is raising funds to purchase the camp and so that it can continue to operate. Their challenges include not only raising the funds to make the purchase, but also finding money for deferred maintenance and operational costs. It seems unlikely that the camp will be able to produce revenue enough to break even on its costs. I receive appeals from the committee, comprised mostly of my friends, who are working hard to hang onto the institution that has been so meaningful to so many.

I have corresponded with other friends across the nation who have reported the loss or sales of their church camps. The camp we participated in during our years in North Dakota has been sold. Another camp in Minnesota has been sold. These are properties that, once sold, can never be replaced by the church. Churches and conferences of churches are not able to raise funds to buy expensive recreational property and in many cases he camps have been subdivided and large tracts of land required for church camps are simply not offered for sale.

It is not just church camps.

the Boy Scouts of America has filed for bankruptcy. The group is struggling with declining membership. It also faces a number of lawsuits over claims of sexual abuse that allege the organization failed to prevent abuse. The group Abused in Scouting has identified over 2,000 individuals with complaints of abuse, including one in every state. Current liabilities of the organization are estimated to be in the $1 billion range. The Boy Scouts is one of the largest non-profit youth organizations in the country. Sexual abuse allegations have created financial problems for other organizations including the Catholic Church and USA Gymnastics.

Compared to the problems of those organizations, our little non-profit’s problems are tiny. We have to figure out how to express our thanks and appreciation to employees that we can no longer afford to retain. We have to come up with a plan to provide management and organization of our essential programs without the help of paid staff. We don’t have abuse claims. The finances of our little organization are pretty simple. But, like those other organizations we are bankrupt. Liabilities exceed assets. We will have to continue to raise funds to meet our obligations.

The current climate in our country is a real challenge for non-profits. We have survived for years on a shoestring, cobbling together grants from private and public sources, donations from local members and a small amount of income from direct services provided. We have believe passionately in our mission. Grant funding is always fickle. In the case of our organization, funds that had been available for suicide prevention were moved to opioid abuse prevention. It is an important cause, but not the business of our organization. Other organizations were more visible to some of our other funders. We will lose some donors because of their loyalty to the staff we have employed or their perception that the organization is not stable. That is the thing about living off of donations. Donors are under no obligation and there are plenty of other organizations appealing for funds.

All is not lost. We believe in what we are doing and we will find ways to continue our work even though we might lose our flashy web site and well-placed office. The future of the organization may be uncertain, but the need will not go away. Suicide is still a crisis in our community. It is the leading cause of death of teens in our state. We cannot stop our work even though we face financial and organizational challenges. We have to be honest about the mistakes we have made in the past, and realistic about the scale of our efforts going forward, but we will endure.

Sometimes difficult times become important steps in the history of an organization. Challenges help to focus priorities and refine practices. When you cannot afford waste, you get serious about eliminating it. Still, I approach today’s meeting with a certain dread. I am not looking forward to those uncomfortable moments. May I bring compassion and caring to the time that lies ahead and may I be open to God’s guidance as we seek a way forward.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!