In Defense of the Nonprofit "Safety Net" and Small Community Based Organizations (CBOs)

In Defense of the Nonprofit

A heightened sense of uncertainty combined with dread has descended upon the NYC nonprofit human services community, in the midst of the current economic crisis and resulting budgetary downturn. The entities that comprise this sector, a great many of them being CBOs, have historically served as the “safety net” for poor and vulnerable New Yorkers. We’re all struggling with contingency planning and the “worst case scenario” budget modifications which translate to the closing of needed programs, the laying off of staff and the horrific prospect of entire agencies becoming insolvent and disappearing. These potential outcomes would be devastating as they would completely shred an already tattered safety net for our most vulnerable populations and distressed communities, increasing already unacceptable social disparities and exacerbate unemployment rates since these agencies provide jobs for these communities.

This sector has historically been under-resourced, having to compensate for this through aggressive fundraising strategies aimed toward foundations, corporations and individuals. Those agencies that have the capacity to create and implement these strategies are usually successful, yet a great number of the successful agencies still rely upon their government contracts as a major revenue source in their respective operating budgets.
Since 1974, the Lower East Side Family Union (LESFU) has been preserving, strengthening and empowering poor and working class families at risk of having their children placed in foster care, serving over 1,200 children and close to 400 families yearly. Being a small, grassroots CBO, LESFU is in constant competition with the large, high profile nonprofit agencies and institutions for the finite amount of philanthropic dollars that exist. According to a recent study conducted by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and financed by Google, only 8% of donations were given to charities to meet the basic needs of the poor. The current economic crisis will be rendering the playing field even more unequal.

In recent meetings with colleagues that receive significant private funding, I’ve been hearing comments of how certain elements within the foundation community are advocating for a contraction of the nonprofit service provider community via consolidations, mergers, etc., a virtual “weeding out process that would almost certainly impact the smaller, grassroots CBOs as being the ones to be swallowed up”. If these comments have merit then I suggest that the foundation community reconsider their position. There are limits in attempting to apply free market, for profit principles to the nonprofit human service sector. It can be argued that free market fundamentalism was a contributing factor to this current economic fiasco, not a “best practice” approach for running an economy dictated by unfettered greed!
Smaller, grassroots CBOs are deeply embedded within distressed, diverse and recent immigrant communities they serve, usually with the necessary linguistic/cultural capacity. Many of them are indigenously led and staffed by members of these communities.  These CBOS are bastions of employment, support, advocacy and services for these distressed communities. Smaller, grassroots CBOs should be preserved and strengthened because we play an integral part of NYC’s safety net, and the donor community should acknowledge this and act accordingly.

Ralph Dumont is the Executive Director of the Lower East Side Family Union.

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