Last month a study was released that suggested the majority of the 12 million baby boomer generation would be interested in creating their own nonprofit or socially aware business in the near future.
At first I thought of this as a positive statement, of a generation emerging who want to spent their time and resources creating a better world. I have, over the past two years, highlighted and promoted many non-profits and lauded the commitment of socially conscious business.
But I have to say that this enthusiasm somewhat waned as I considered the implications. I run a nonprofit in San Francisco, Hillel – the Jewish Student Center based by San Francisco State University. Our nonprofit has been in existence for over sixty years and yet we (the national movement) lead the way within the Jewish community. We are innovative and have the trained and committed staff to carry out new initiatives and the experience to analyze what works and what doesn’t.
I thought that my feeling of so many nonprofits in existence was due to living in the vibrantly conscious Bay Area. But I discovered from The Chronicle of Philanthropy that there are more than a million nonprofits in existence.
Over the last few months, my board of directors has been intensively engaged with recruiting new board members as we go through one of the inevitable cycles of change. When meeting with prospects we do not have to work too hard to establish who we are. Over 90% of Jews participate in higher education and know what Hillel is. Neither do we discover resistance based upon financial constraints because we offer a low barrier in terms of a board member’s personal capacity. We seek commitment and passion.
When we approach these prospects, however, we discover that each is committed to a long line of causes and felt over-extended. Some have generously agreed to join us, others offer an extremely welcomed financial gift, and most suggested we return to them when they term out from some of their current boards.
So I think you can imagine why I am not as enthused by the prospect of a wave of new non-profits joining a market whose resources are already strained in terms of money and committed members.
There is a double-edged sword here. I want to be clear that I applaud the sentiment of these baby boomers, whether to set up a nonprofit or a socially conscious business. It says a lot about their values and the world that they and I envisage. I would be wrong to suggest that the need for such services is not growing.
You have to have been living on another planet to not realize that the poor are getting poorer and that more families and individuals are joining their ranks. The middle class are also struggling as their median income level continues to fall. I am sure that this is what is stirring people to action. Either you are hurting or you know others who are – and this is almost as painful. The top echelon (is it 1% or 5%?) continues to acquire wealth and actually grabbed the biggest share of after-tax income in the last thirty years. As we all know now, the top 5% own 60% of all private wealth.
Many of those in the 1% or 5% are the very people keeping the lights on in the nonprofit world, so we shouldn’t be too quick to bite the hand that feeds. I am impressed and humbled by the time and money that many of these people invest in philanthropic work.
Rather it is the rising disparity that is driving a greater need for the work of nonprofits. However, it cannot be ignored that we (the nonprofits) are cutting our staff and services as we struggle to remain solvent. In such a difficult environment is it not better to consolidate those agencies that have proved their worth rather than set up new agencies that will need to go through the inevitable growing pains at a time when we can ill-afford the luxury?
People enjoy investing in startups and it is the same with their philanthropy. However, the reality is that many of the new nonprofits won’t survive either because of a one-person leadership, a mission that has no depth, or they simply cannot sustain the income that development professionals learn to do over many years.
This might lead to disenchantment from those organizing and those investing. It could actually have a rebound effect on the 12 million who want to roll up their shirtsleeves and get involved. And this could lead to people being turned off from investing their money and time into agencies that can provide, and are providing, the essential services that many of us so desperately need today.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).