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June 11th, 2008
What the World Needs Now (Is less non-profits, more collaboration)

Not a week goes by these days where one does not read or hear about a “new” non-profit organization being formed to “fix a problem”. There was a time where only a few non-profits existed in each community. The local Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Clubs were often founded when the business community found a need to work together on issues affecting the community. There was your church where you went for worship and often where you would offer support for those less fortunate in the community. There was the school and subsequently its booster clubs and PTO’s organized to support school projects and extracurricular activities. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts where kids could learn leadership skills and make friends. And then there were the “ladies groups” such as the Junior League that raised funds for community projects. You knew where to go to help in a particular area and everyone that wanted to get involved, did so, together.

Today our non-profit world has become so fragmented it is frightening. If you have a need for a service or want to help – you often do not know where to turn. Look at any issue: Education, Homelessness, Hunger, Beautification, Preservation – and you will find a whole host of groups you could join. How do you know which one to choose to support? Where can your support have biggest impact? Or perhaps the more important question: why don’t these groups work better together?

The ease of forming non-profit organizations, and the financial and tax advantages that have encouraged the formation of these groups has been both a blessing and a curse. Non-profits continue to expand at a rate of over 10% a year, with no end in sight. There is a group formed to fill every imaginable need, and still they continue to come.

Is there no end in sight? Can anything be done? Our government leaders are so concerned that laws have been passed in recent years to make the requirements to form a non-profit organization more difficult. But it has not had a huge impact on the rate of growth of non-profits. Locally, what can you do? Ask questions. Especially when you hear of a new group starting to form. Often there are groups already in existence to tackle the issues. It’s just a matter of finding the right organization and offering to help. Sometimes a new legal entity is necessary. But always ask the question.

What else can be done? Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. There are limited resources in every community – both in terms of financial and volunteer support. We can only go back to that same well so many times before we find that it has dried up. By working with other entities with similar goals in the community – we can expand our reach and make our programs more effective. Non-profits should exist only when they effectively provide a needed product or service that cannot be met elsewhere. A famous saying in the non-profit world is “when the horse is dead, dismount”. Sometimes we have to face the fact that the time has come to move on.

Non-profits are a good thing. All are chock-full of good people wanting to do great things for their community. But the time has come to find ways to work together – collaboratively – to maximize limited resources and create the biggest impact. Businesses are called to do less with more, to work more efficiently and to stretch their resources. Non-profits must do the same.

By PHYLLIS SNODGRASS
President – San Marcos Area Chamber of Commerce

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0 thoughts on “What the World Needs Now (Is less non-profits, more collaboration)

  1. I disagree.

    Yes, one needs to be careful about the non-profits that one supports. Some are run well and some are run very poorly.

    I don’t see the sheer number of non-profits as anything but a good thing. I don’t hear anyone saying that we need fewer Mexican restaurants, or banks, or auto manufacturers, or computer companies, or any other business, simply because of the number that already exist. When there are too many, the bad ones will fall by the wayside. It is when the numbers are artificially limited that we start to see poorly run companies allowed to thrive.

    More non-profits means more competition and more weeding out of the poorly run organizations. Competition will drive non-profits to do the very thing that you say they must: do more with less, work more efficiently and stretch their resources.

    More non-profits also means more visibility to various issues, as each of the non-profits works to get visibility and support.

    In the end, these things will only serve to benefit those in need.

    Competition is a very good thing and it is a little unsettling to see the president of the chamber of commerce discouraging it.

  2. I am a little disappointed. What resources are being used up by only non-profits? Do you have specifics of abuse? Is this just a general philosophy? Believe me even a church can be run poorly. I can’t tell why you would be against more non-profits.

  3. Collaboratively is something that can be accomplished. This is true. I believe non-profit organizations bring attention to certain areas that are overlooked or some other organization or govt or church is something that may be tapped out for funds or donations to people or causes they may not be able to assist with. Remember Katrina Rita anyone? Our Gov’t would not allow people fleeing from the storms from Houston to use our activity center as shelter because it wasn’t deemed as somewhere for them to go. Ok I got that. However The Methdoist Church was the first to provide care packages and doantions and shelter almost immediately. As well as a few good people who went out of their way to locate these people in motels and find out their specific needs. Hooray for them. Various non profit and for profit businesses stepped up as well with donations etc. They did ban together and at that point werent really concerned about stepping on anyones toes becuase the immediate need was there.
    I will agree in this town there is a division amongst people who feel their immediate need isn’t being met because of race, age or whatever side of town they live on. They choose to be segregated so to speak and the idea of working together is missing in this town. Although there are many non-profit agencies that are well recieved and run accordingly.

  4. Most non-profits are very good and serve a needed purpose. And yes, the abuses and poor management of a few have sometimes hurt the image of many more that are doing good in the world. This is just a reminder that sometimes you can get involved with an existing organization to “do good stuff” rather than setting up a whole new entity. I am a graduate of Institute for Organization Management and this talk is not new in the non-profit world. I am just taking it “out to the streets”. Non-profits have overhead – and by setting up a new entity – this involves more overhead. Paid staff, operating expenses – it all costs money. The point of this article to encourage collaboration whenever possible. It is not to diminish the good work of many non-profits in our community.

  5. The thoughts you stated Phyllis just weren’t communicated well, I guess. The title of your opinion suggests that we need to have “less non-profits.” When I read this I had the impression you were saying we need to get rid of some non-profit organizations. The title seemed to set the theme of your article. Perhaps a better title would be, “What the World Needs Now Is More Collaborations.” Thanks for your reply comment it makes sense now.

  6. I understood what she was referring to as far as collaboration is concerned. I agree with her. I appreciate Jeremy’s comment of a better title to the article. However as I stated before this town is truly divided and it is something that shouldn’t be overlooked. So on that note no matter what side of town you live on shouldn’t be the dividing factor of what non-profit helps you out or what non-profit you participate in. There are several senior things to do but obviously divided. Other organizations are divided by race as well as what side of town you live on. Ther are also two Chambers of Commerce. Thoughts?

  7. I just don’t understand how a non-profit is any different than any other business.

    I wish, due to the sheer numbers, people would stop starting software companies. It would make it much easier for me to find employees and to sell our products.

    If another software company starts tomorrow, producing the same products we do (which happens all the time), the competition will force us each to get better or to go away.

    Yes, it would be nice if those people would come here and look for work before starting their own companies, but the reality is, even in a very tight job market, I still turn away a lot of applicants for the few positions I have open.

    Obviously, those folks felt like they were qualified and maybe they were. Maybe the company was just a bad fit for them or maybe they were not the best interviewees.

    Whatever the reason, I turned them away and would not be the least bit surprised to see them start their own businesses.

    Let’s also not forget that many businesses in many fields are started by people who are aware of those already in the space, but who believe they can do a better job. In fact, I recently read that most successful startups are not based on revolutionary new ideas, but rather old ideas executed more effectively.

    How is a non-profit any different?

    Sure, it might seem the “polite” thing to do, to see that someone else is already feeding the homeless and to move on to other matters, but the homeless need food more than anyone needs FTP software and if someone knows a better way to feed them, I will not be the one to stand in their way, no matter how many others are already doing that work.

    Now, if the point is that through collaboration, existing non-profits can run more efficiently and serve their causes more effectively, then I am all for it, just as long as we are not collaborating with the intention of creating artificial barriers to entry.

    Monopolies, whether created by talking people out of starting new organizations or by collaborating with others to keep new organizations out, serve nobody.

  8. Two Chambers of Commerce. That is true. Maybe we can get rid of one if they were to collaborate. Obviously the Hispanic Chamber felt there were needs not being met by the Chamber that they needed to have there own.

    Of course I am kidding. Shouldn’t free enterprise be the decider of what organizations stay in business?
    If there is no demand then the non-profit can’t raise money… thus they have to close. I agree with Ted. Just because an organization says it is non-profit does it mean it really is? Couldn’t a manager or president of the organization just get a bigger pay check to cover up profit?

  9. Actually, there are some fairly well defined rules for determining if an organization qualifies as a non-profit, particularly where the IRS is concerned.

    You are correct that many non-profits have bloated payrolls and spend far too little on the causes they were formed to support.

  10. I would change the title if I could! Try writing a column a week for a year and a half and see if you don’t trip up! It seems the title was misleading, and I apologize for that. Nor am I suggesting that “ethnic chambers” should go away. If they formed to serve a business constituency whose needs were not being met, and if they serve a purpose (as determined by the fact that members continue to voluntarily write a check for membership) – then who can argue? I think my point was really more about collaboration. And how all of us can work with existing groups rather than start new ones – WHEN POSSIBLE. I believe in change from within whenever possible. Non profits ARE different than business. They exist to serve the needs of their membership(as in a chamber, builders association, realtors association – all 501-C-6 Business Membership Organizations) or Social, Cultural or Historical Preservation needs as in one of the many wonderful agencies in our community such as Big Brothers, Big Sisters, the Food Bank, Communication Action, etc. etc. etc. (all 501-C-3’s). Their mission is to accomplish the works they were set up to do and they are governed by a board of their members or supporters. Many San Marcos non profits are models of collaboration. But we live in a world of division and I was bringing up a topic that non profit execs discuss all the time – just to make the rest of the world more aware of it. Non profits must have payrolls because its the staff that gets most of the work done. And in today’s world their are less volunteers available with less time than ever before, so more and more work falls on staff. Most non profits do not have bloated payrolls – but that’s another reason for collaboration, because the more work you can do with existing staff, the less overhead needs to be covered. That’s the beauty of collaboration. I think next week I will write on something less controversial, like the War in Iraq. 🙂

  11. I have worked for many and have been sorely disappointed by how they are managed from the inside. Their is help, but it is a maze, which is sometimes difficult to navigate when in the midst of a crisis.

    Administratively, those that I have worked for are run very poorly. If you have worked at a non profit and have been fortunate enough to have a good experience (which I am sure there are many) than I imagine it balances out. I on the other hand have not become a bit cynical about the inside workings of those non profits that I have worked for.

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