Wednesday, June 07, 2006

On strike

No, not me, but I did love the op-ed piece by Robert Eggar about this very subject in the current issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Eggar (and his organization, DC Kitchen) has acted on what I’ve been saying for years and years and years. We in the nonprofit sector enable our own under-funding by saying "yes".

What I mean by this is that by agreeing to continue to do mission when we are more and more grievously under-funded, over regulated and generally dumped on, we act like any other enabler: we feed the beast. Eggar had had enough and went on strike.

My son Adam recently bought his first (used) car. He researched, shopped and focused on a 3-year-old sedan offered for sale at a used car lot. Adam negotiated hard, and got the price down. But does anyone believe that the car dealer sold Adam the car for less than they paid for it? Of course not. That would be suicidal for the business.

Soooo, what about us? Why do we so happily (or at least willingly) hop on the slippery slope of saying “yes” year in and year out to government, foundation, or corporate funders no matter what the reimbursement level is? Is it because we ourselves sacrifice time, talent and treasure to work or volunteer in a nonprofit, so that if the organization has to sacrifice as well it’s OK? Or is it that we believe so strongly in what our mission does that we think the world will end right here, right now if we cease a particular service?

I am well aware that there are other customers for a used car, and often only one customer (read: funder) for a particular service. But one of the reasons we can be pushed around by that one funder is that we never, ever, seriously push back. We whine, we moan, but only among ourselves. We form state associations to lobby for more government funds, but when did you ever hear an official of those associations preach actual peaceful resistance? Where are all the boomers who resisted and protested everything?

Why am I so passionate about this? Because the steady decline in level of funding in relation to actual costs, the assumption that nonprofits can and should be perpetually poor (unless they are universities or large medical facilities) is insulting and demeaning to the people and the causes we serve.

So, go read the Eggar piece, and think about saying no more often. There's a lot of power in that word.