Since the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan was elected and the devolutionary efforts to move the care of people off the government’s To Do list and on to those of community nonprofits, the explosion of new nonprofits began. Wise heads have been sure that there are TOO MANY NONPROFITS! And it is true that the number of NPOs has more than tripled in that time…I keep a work journal and have pages of notes from Austin, Texas where in 1986, the primary funders of human services declared the above and tried to force mergers. Most of the energy generated from that activity was put into covert resistance. Mergers aren’t easy…especially not in an industry where passion and identity rule.
This reductive sentiment roils through the sector periodically and we have learned much about what is effective and what is not in merger and consolidation. In Pittsburgh, we have some mergers that have truly worked. They’ve worked for the people served (more and better!). They’ve worked for the staff of the organizations (better benefits, better IT, more career advancement). They’ve worked to better build community. Wesley Spectrum is a role model for productive merging. Here at the Bayer Center, we believe the community benefited from our merger with the Executive Service Corps. ESC volunteers brought expertise and experience that BCNM staff lacked. We can now help with HR, facility, and legal challenges.
If a true fit of mission and culture can be found, many nonprofits would benefit from being a little bigger. But finding the right partner is not an effort of desperation or at least, not solely…
However, in the latest Utne Reader (if you don’t know the Utne, I encourage you to check it out…it’s the Reader Digest for Progressives), I found the hairs on the back of my neck going up when I read Bob Eggers’ casual statement of his belief that over the next year, 25% of NPOs would disappear – and that we would have a “more dynamic and robust” sector if that happened. It is not the first time I have read such statements since the economy tanked.
It must be nice to sit where the gods sit and make such sweeping judgments! Who should go, Bob? I fear some we will really miss. Will it be a more robust, survival of the fittest culture or will the culture be robbed of the very things that are most important for healthy nonprofits? Nonprofits are not meant to be bad businesses, but engines of advocacy for those they serve, think tanks for social solutions and providers of loving, knowledgeable care. Those factors say robust and dynamic to me…and fragile. These qualities are difficult to fund in good times and likely to get lost in the drive for survival. I’d like to hear from you about how we can avert this potential loss of talent, skill and heart.