Thursday, May 3, 2012

Building Resilience into the Nonprofit Sector

This post was originally featured in To The Point, the e-newsletter for CompassPoint

“Systemic change.” I heard this phrase for years, and probably even used it, without really feeling what it meant. Of course I knew that it referred to structures that had to be dismantled or re-thought or, in some cases, built in order to address various oppressions, but there is a difference between knowing something intellectually and really knowing it in your whole entire being. Then one time I was staying with a member of the board of a grassroots organization doing work in a very poor neighborhood of a large city. She was out and I was hungry so I set off to find something to eat .

My host had told me there were no restaurants, even fast food chains, in walking distance, so I just thought I would find a grocery store and get something. After several inquiries and many blocks of walking, I finally came across a small bodega. The choices were many kinds of liquor and many kinds of chips, ice cream, spam, Wonder Bread, and the like. There was nothing fresh, no frozen vegetables, and not even that much in the canned food section. This turned out to be the only store in about 25 square blocks of a neighborhood where most people don’t own cars and the bus runs infrequently. Just a ten minute drive away is a large supermarket, but it might as well be in another state for how accessible it is. I learned that these kinds of neighborhoods are called “food deserts.” Suddenly “systemic change” felt very personal— I could see why the food justice movement says the whole way food is grown and distributed has to be re-thought. I eat junk food because it tastes good sometimes, and it is easy to get, but I have never thought, “I eat it because it is really hard to get any other kind of food.”

In the nonprofit sector we are experiencing “money deserts.” I help individual organizations diversify their funding streams, build their donor base, make themselves more attractive to funders, and strengthen their capacity to raise money. But strengthening the capacity to raise money assumes that there is money to be raised, and sometimes that is a false assumption. Those organizations which have relied on government funding to do work that governments should fund--meeting basic human needs, providing public education, protecting our open spaces, insuring that people who can’t afford lawyers still have access to the law, the list goes on--are currently in a “money desert” and only the concerted joint effort of all kinds of nonprofits will solve this problem.

Resilience—the ability to be flexible and nimble, to thrive in a variety of circumstances, depends on all of us thinking about the nature of funding and how organizations should be funded. What kinds of organizations should be funded mostly by foundations? What kinds of organizations should focus on a variety of individual donor strategies, and what kinds of organizations really shouldn’t? The conversation has to go beyond what you are able to do and move into what makes the most sense for your mission. For example, just because you are good at getting grants doesn’t mean that is the best way to do your work. Many organizations that used to get government funding have been successful raising money from foundations and individuals, but does that mean their work should be privately funded?

Organizations need to focus on being resilient, just like individuals need to focus on being healthy. But just as no individual can really be healthy outside of the context of culture, geography, and economic ability, neither can a nonprofit. Many communities are fixing their food deserts with mobile grocery stores (such as the People’s Grocery here in Oakland); urban agriculture and gardening programs; farmers’ markets; zoning laws to prevent more liquor stores or fast food outlets; and loans and incentives to encourage community owned businesses. What are the lessons the nonprofit sector can learn from the food justice movement? Why not take part of your staff or board meeting to reflect on this question? Our overall health, and by extension, the health and wellbeing of our communities, depends on our collective answers.

For more on how to have these kinds of conversations at your nonprofit or in your networks, visit

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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a friend who was doing a little homework on this.

And he actually ordered me breakfast simply because I discovered it for him...
lol. So let me reword this.... Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah,
thanks for spending the time to talk about this matter here on your blog.

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