Published in the Dallas Morning News, July 2014
Does anybody know of a non-profit that is doing well? I can think of a few: KERA, where I have an association, has made a strong recovery and is doing better, in fact, than at any time since the glory days of Bob Wilson. Another is the Fort Worth Opera. General manager Darren Woods was quick to spot trouble in early 2008 when a friend who was an attorney mentioned strange things happening in the land of mortgages. Woods immediately cut from four productions to three, and by the time the crash came he had saved $700,000 out of a budget of $4.5 million. He also saved his company a lot of grief.
Those who held to the high life, hoping for a miracle, have had it the hardest. Many are realizing now that the world as they knew it is over. Happy days may be here again for a lucky few in the new economy, but that rising tide had lifted yachts, not smaller craft. Those who wait for trickle-down from lofty fountains may drown in a lesser sea of disappointment.
Nonetheless, ever hopeful, some in Washington are looking to Texas, convinced that a pot of gold awaits them here. All that fracking is bound to redound to the benefit of somebody and it may as well be them. But Texas is a big state that absorbs a lot of the philanthropic dollars it produces. Also, some travel to Texas, collection plate in hand, not really understanding the interests of the people they’re approaching. Sometimes there’s a tendency to say, in effect, “okay we’ve met, now hand over the money,” when it can takes years to build the relationships that would shake loose important contributions.
Then there’s the strategy centered on eccentric billionaires. The idea is to move beyond foundations, too often maxed-out, and search instead for very rich individuals off-beat enough to give against type, like the highly conservative Koch brothers, Charles and David, who have donated to the United Negro College Fund, hardly a hotbed of radicalism but not what might be expected of the Kochs. Or there are those who dream of finding some super-sugar-daddy, capable of a new infatuation. A group in L.A. calls this its “business model.”
Some for whom this hasn’t worked are whipping their boards with the fervor of Kevin Spacey in Season One of House of Cards, demanding that funds be signed over or raised, or else. However, sometimes wealthy members refuse to give at the levels desired, perhaps out of dismay that their advice to streamline costs is ignored. Instead staff leaders go deeper into deficits, believing that if they spend more money they’ll raise more. That’s rarely the case in the hard-scrabble lives of today’s non-profits.
There’s a desperation to all of this that clouds the necessary clarity. “Optimism is a force multiplier,” as Colin Powell said in his military days, and he was right. But optimism must be married to realism and an effort by non-profit presidents to understand, really understand, their true situation. Then they must learn to live with available resources, working to generate more funds, of course, but pursuing them for specific projects, not general operations. If they’re successful, that can best be seen as a lovely windfall, not incorporated into daily expectations.
This may not be an age of austerity for non-profits, but it certainly comes close. Refusing to recognize this and adapt to it is a recipe for even thinner gruel in the future.