I once worked for a major American opera. Almost no one is indifferent to opera. You either love it or hate it.
If you have never worked in performing arts you are probably unaware of this, but opera is second only to war in per capita expense. It is logical to ask why, if opera is so expensive and so many people don’t enjoy it, then why perform it? In 2014 The Guardian gave what I think is the best answer.
“Why is opera important? … The combination of dramatic narrative, stagecraft and music, and especially the range and vulnerability of the human voice, make opera the art form that comes closest to expressing pure emotion. It is storytelling at its most vivid and manipulative.”
I mention opera because, in many ways, 2021 has been operatic in its scope, dramatic narrative, range and vulnerability. As nonprofit leaders, we are playing an increasingly important part in this American story. And, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m exhausted.
I am not the kind of person who likes to dwell on the negative, and our year-end blog is certainly not the place for that. But it is worth noting that, like an opera, after a long, long haul, we are probably only at the first intermission. So, get up, stretch your legs, maybe get a drink, but we’ve got another dozen arias, recitatives, and choruses ahead.
And, that’s a good thing.
As nonprofit leaders, we have an opportunity to stake out an important future for ourselves in this ever-changing national landscape. Our missions are important. If they could be accomplished for a profit, someone would be doing them for profit. The last two years have highlighted how much need there is for our services and how thinly spread we are. There is a need for what we do. The key to our collective future, in my opinion, is for us to grow bigger and stronger in scope, but not necessarily in number.
According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), we are ending 2021 with more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S. This number includes public charities, private foundations, and other types of nonprofit organizations, including chambers of commerce, fraternal organizations and civic leagues. When you compare that to the US population of 333,808,000, that means there is one nonprofit for about every 222 people in the country.
Now, admittedly many of those nonprofits are small in scope or are paper entities, but even if we reduced the amount by a factor of 3, the average nonprofit would still service less than 1,000 people. Just like in an opera, the more characters you introduce, the harder it is to follow the action.
I have argued for years that there is a need for consolidation in nonprofits and I stand by that. But even without consolidation, our priority as an economic sector should be to discourage the wholesale creation of new nonprofits.
I believe our sector is unusually subject to an ongoing injection of new entrants based on a fundamental lack of research. As individual Americans grow wealthy and successful – especially first generation millionaires – they have a desire to “give back.” And many of these people, usually entrepreneurs, became wealthy by building something new from scratch because there was an opportunity. They bring that same entrepreneurial and enterprising spirit to philanthropy. However, they are often creating a new nonprofit without researching whether another already exists with that mission, or could be expanded to address their particular focus.
When faced with new donors anxious to make a difference, let’s first attempt to help them find a philanthropic home with an existing organization. God knows, that organization is out there and it needs them. Let’s focus on strengthening ourselves collectively, and stemming the unrestrained expansion of the sector.
Faith in the future is what distinguishes many of us in the nonprofit world. Let’s become more active in creating that future for ourselves. All of us at Our Fundraising Search wish you happy holidays and a safe, prosperous and peaceful new year.