Cooperation key for nonprofits

The economic downturn has squeezed virtually every nonprofit in the country.

United Way of San Luis Obispo County, along with other local organizations, continues to be challenged on the ways and means we fulfill our missions with our programs, donors, volunteers and local agencies.

Paul C. Light, a noted author and professor at New York University, last year predicted that 100,000 nonprofits will close their doors and few dissented.

The Dec. 10 issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy asserts that “the nonprofit world is about to face the toughest year in its history. 2010 could be far more painful for charities and the people they serve than any other they have known.”

As we navigate our way through this economic cycle, many of us will be required to re-evaluate our priorities and missions.

Aid shrinking

Nonprofits that rely heavily on state grants, contracts and local government aid will find little relief in 2010.

As tax revenues continue their shrinking trend, how Sacramento struggles with the daunting task of reducing the state budget yet another estimated $21 billion over the next two years remains to be seen.

Hit hard by investment losses, many of our regional foundations will probably trim their giving next year or keep it steady at 2009 levels.

Some foundations across the country have said they may close at a point in the near future and spend the entirety of their assets in response to financial declines and growing social needs.

Nonprofits can anticipate continued increases in requests for food, housing and many other social services as people struggle with job losses and other problems triggered by the downturn. The prolonged financial strains on individuals and families are also expected to lead to spikes in crime, domestic violence, mental illness and substance abuse.

There will be increased pressure on paid staffing structures, as nonprofits learn how to more effectively and efficiently absorb and manage a welcomed increase in volunteerism.

Building cooperation

While competition provides the opportunity for bringing out our best, our local nonprofit sector continues to look for ways to cooperate and collaborate. I find that this spirit of working together requires us to be more intentional in our thinking, as our instinctual nature to compete always seems ready to polarize conversations at the drop of a hat.

In her article “How Nonprofits Can Work Together,” Flo Green, Vice President, IdeaEncore Network, underscores the tendency for nonprofits to seriously begin considering collaboration with others only when their financial situation has become desperate and their organization is on the brink of collapse. Ms. Green points out that the time to think about the different ways to collaborate is before desperation sets in, and then offers strategies for how our organizations can overcome the common barriers to working together — time, trust and turf.

At Collaboration SLO 2009, nonprofit leaders spent the day exploring the possibilities on how we might share resources, increase cooperation where services are being duplicated and brainstorm on ways to meet needs where critical gaps in service persist. It launched a sincere effort to encourage practical ways for nonprofits to intentionally enhance our opportunities for exploring the collaboration spectrum. This spectrum can be as simple as sharing information over lunch to various types of restructuring and consolidations. To help facilitate more intentional cooperative and collaborative thinking the Collaboration SLO 2009 steering committee, with sponsorship support, pooled resources to help fund professional consulting services to two qualified collaborative projects, to begin in January 2010.

The two projects are:

The Partnership for Excellence in Family Support.

This is a recently formed, countywide network of family resource centers, community-based organizations and county agencies. Their collective goal is to design a collaborative vision to strengthen efforts in the family support field.

The Atascadero Collaboration for Tourism.

Composed of businesses, nonprofits and other community organizations, the group shares the goal of utilizing local history, recreation, attractions and ambiance to promote and position Atascadero as a unique destination.

I like to think that most of us in the nonprofit sector look forward to the day when the services we provide are no longer needed and necessary. Conversely, it can be very challenging when one of our nonprofits is unable to sustain itself while their services continue to be needed.

As we close out this year, our very own SLO Hotline found itself unable to sustain its business. Fortunately, enough community members and partners recognized the value of its service and were willing and able to collaborate to find a new strategy and structure that will keep 211 calls being answered, for at least the next six months.

Necessity can be the inspiration for innovation. We as individuals and as part of any given organization must try to be more cooperatively and collaboratively intentional in our thoughts, words and deeds.

Rick London is chief executive officer of United Way of San Luis Obispo County.

Editor’s note

This is another in a series of perspectives on the challenges and opportunities that San Luis Obispo County will face in 2010.

We asked local experts to weigh in on a variety of areas — including government, the economy, the environment, social services and education — by offering some advice, along with their forecasts.

Today, Rick London of United Way of San Luis Obispo County writes about what the future holds for the many nonprofit organizations serving our communities.

On Thursday, Neil Havlik, natural resources manager for the city of San Luis Obispo, shares his thoughts about some of the most pressing environmental issues facing local communities.