Monday, February 16, 2009

Any more lean years for non-profits a potential disaster

The lesson that lingers the most for me from my three years of heading up a non-profit is how very hard you have to work just to keep the doors open.
Whatever else may be happening on a given day, the one constant for anyone running a non-profit is the endless hustle for money. Barely a moment went by in my time at PEERS Victoria when I wasn’t working at least a dozen different angles to make sure we’d have enough money to keep going.
And that was in the good times. In bad times - well, I guess we’ll see. Nationally, expectations are that as many as a fifth of Canada’s 60,000 non-profits will close as a result of the economic downturn. Small non-profits walk a razor edge when it comes to survival, so that number sounds frighteningly accurate to me.
Non-profits rely almost exclusively on governments, investment-rich foundations and generous citizens for their funding. None of those groups have much interest in spending at the moment.
That’s a scary development for a sector that generally lives by the seat of its pants even in boom years. It’s an equally scary development for what it will mean for the tens of thousands of British Columbians who rely on the myriad services and programs run by non-profits. B.C. agencies are awaiting Tuesday’s provincial budget with particular trepidation, as the province provides the bulk of their funding.
“How do you do the work you do if you don’t have any profit?” a UVic student once asked me after I’d told her PEERS was a “non-profit.” The label is fairly baffling, I agree, and “not-for-profit” no better.
What’s possibly worse for the sector is that both terms call to mind a kind of begging state, a place where there’s never any money to be had . That’s certainly how it is for a lot of small non-profits, but you know what they say about how a label can hold you down.
Essentially, the sector does the work of government - most importantly, the human-service work essential to a civil society. The private sector doesn’t set up shop unless it can turn a profit, so a typical western democracy like Canada turns to non-profits to do all the other work that would otherwise go undone.
That’s the reason why it’s PEERS and not a private business providing outreach on the local prostitution stroll. It’s the reason why poor people in the downtown are fed and cared for by non-profits, and why the work of holding families together is mostly done by neighbourhood houses and other small agencies.
The people who need those services don’t have the money to pay for them, which means the work is all cost and no revenue. That’s the kind of service that’s either going to be provided by the non-profit sector or not at all.
British Columbians count on a very long list of non-profit-run services to be there when they’re needed. Sexual-assault counselling; programs for children with disabilities; job training and placement; legal advice; support for troubled teenagers; seniors’ care; on and on - were it not for all the work done by B.C. non-profits, this province would be a much sicker, sadder and less productive place.
But it’s one thing to be thankful for the work of non-profits, and quite another to fund them with any kind of consistency. Unstable funding that rarely keeps up with cost-of-living increases has been the norm even under governments professing interest in looking after vulnerable citizens, but has become much more of a problem in the past decade as governments moved to reject responsibility for the social health of citizens.
In B.C., those shifting ideologies placed the non-profit sector firmly on the outside looking in during the economic boom. Having gone hungry for several years now, many are in poor shape to withstand whatever might be coming now that the economy has collapsed.
Obviously, we need to be worried in B.C. about lost construction jobs and dried-up industrial contracts, because that’s where the recession has shown its face first. But there’s big trouble on the horizon that will rock the non-profit sector as well, at a time when it’s weak from years of underfunding and facing even greater demand for services due to the crashing economy.
Perhaps it’s the nature of the work - not nearly as visible as a broken arm or a cancerous lung, not nearly so easily measured as a graduation certificate or an overcrowded classroom. But it will be our grand mistake if we underestimate the importance of keeping our non-profits in fighting shape for the hard work that lies ahead.

1 comment:

RossK said...

"Small non-profits walk a razor edge when it comes to survival, so that number sounds frighteningly accurate to me.

Me too.

The other thing that is important to consider is just how efficient the great majority of small non-profits are.

Which is something that is rarely recognized by either government or the public.