Last month, as many non-profits were faced with losing their status due to a change in the tax filing laws, Board Source President/CEO Linda Crompton suggested the situation might be good for the non-profit world by removing duplicative and ineffective/inactive non-profits. Because non-profits really aren’t required to generate a business plan or survey the need and competition before filing for status, she feels there may be too many non-profits in existence.
No for-profit company would start up without doing a thorough analysis of the competitive landscape; that analysis would be baked into the business plan and would inform all other decisions — one of which might be “not here, not now.” It’s incumbent upon our sector to school itself on this point: just because we have an idea, and a mission, and a great, good heart, does not mean that we need to start our own, brand-spanking new organization to fulfill that mission. The same truth applies to organizations in all stages of their lifecycle. Boards should be asking themselves: are we still relevant? Are we fulfilling our mission effectively and sustainably? Is there another organization across town doing the same thing, only better? Should we be discussing merger, or even dissolution?
I have mentioned a number of times over the years that I have often many arts organizations have been started that could have easily been part of an existing group or that could have merged with other groups when it was clear that their service area couldn’t support both groups very well. I will admit that I have seen many more groups in merger talks over the last few years since the economy has gotten worse than I had during previous economic down turns. It was good to see people considering this route. But I have also seen new groups peel off because of personality differences or a desire to perform a slightly different genre. Admittedly there is a difference between classical and modern realism, but Shakespeare festivals manage to produce both without compromising their souls.
To be honest though, I don’t know if the IRS would be in a position to evaluate whether there was or wasn’t a need for any type of non-profit, be it an arts organization or social service agency. Imagine the work involved in developing criteria to measure if there was a sufficient support base for the organization in a community. Imagine the bad press the IRS would get for denying someone non-profit status for a social service organization serving a very emotionally charged cause.
Which doesn’t mean due diligence shouldn’t be done. In a comment to Linda Crompton’s entry, Don Griesmann links to an entry on his blog in which he enumerates all the considerations that should be made before creating a non-profit. He also footnotes his arguments with the largest number of stories on the difficulties faced by non-profit organizations I have ever seen.
His entry came at the end of 2009 and he proposed that no new non-profits should be allowed to be created in 2010 unless a whole multitude of conditions were met. A brief sampling:
•Unless you understand the nonprofit will not be “your nonprofit” and you have enlisted an incorporating board that is interested in the concept and capable of performing the necessary tasks of incorporating and operating the organization and
•Unless you understand there is no “free money” from the federal or state governments. The federal government distributes funds through scholarships, fellowships, contracts, grants and loans. Each requires an application, meeting eligibility requirements, demonstration of a task to be undertaken, proof that the task was performed and the money used appropriately and in many instances a report evaluating the use of their funds…
….•Unless you have a concept of what it costs to develop and operate a nonprofit in terms of shared leadership, time, thought, study, serious planning, hard work, evaluation and annual reporting as well as money and
•Unless you have no intention of attempting to raise more than $5,000 a year for the next 5 years…
…•Unless you have performed due diligence and created a board of mixed talents, diversity, shared passion and vision concerning a truly unserved issue or need supported by some empirical evidence. If the need is an underserved need, why not join with the current providers and increase the service or product? And
•Unless you understand that there simply are not grants available to pay for the incorporation process. If you and others cannot raise the first $1,000 or so to incorporate, then where do you think you will get the money to run the organization? When someone asks, as many do, does anyone know where I can get a grant to start my nonprofit, we should either not respond or tell the truth – you are not ready to start a nonprofit. Go volunteer at a local nonprofit….
One of his next “unless” includes having a business plan that answer 19 different questions. One of his other conditions might be that you shouldn’t form a non-profit if you don’t have the patience to read his whole entry. While it is very long, it asks many pertinent questions and raises many points that ought to be considered. It is good to see people starting to advocate for this level of consideration prior to forming a non-profit.
Of course, non-profit status covers a lot of situations, including block associations and other purposes that wouldn’t necessarily be competing for grants from a shrinking pool of resources. These will certainly benefit from being well planned, but aren’t likely to struggle to stay in existence or become a drain on their community if they don’t meet every criteria.