Casting bread upon the waters… (Oct 02)

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Sometimes song snippets loop through my head over and over again — until I’m ready to scream . . .

Today, as I prepare this letter, Janis Joplin is moaning “I know you’re worried baby and you know (well, you know) I’m worried too.” I realize I might have dated myself and, okay, I may have retreated emotionally into some kind of late ‘60’s cultural corner–but we all seek a little shelter in stressful times . . . and it is very scary out there.

We are beginning to hear stories about grant commitments being cut by half, about lengthy grant negotiations being suspended, and even about organizations being asked to return a portion of their state contract money — after the work has already been done! There are rumors of established organizations getting ready to fold — how accurate and at what scale, we don’t yet know, the situation is still unfolding. We do know that many organizations are getting peppered with hefty one-two-punches in the forms of reductions in government contracts and private funding.

For our part, the Nonprofit Quarterly promises to work hard, as ever, passing along useful ideas, information and tools that may help you figure out what to do in these uncertain times. As our first offering in this vein, an article from the last issue on how foundations are thinking about grant-making in the context of, in most cases, market-induced asset shortfalls. (See NPQ, Fall 02).

We note the growing opinion that this moment might be best used to rethink our relationships to our funders, our communities and to each other. (It would be nice if we could get out of the box of merely defending our own institutions.) We need to begin thinking more expansively about the communities and fields in which we work and what needs saving or improving. Personally, my worst fear is that we will all just hunker down, attending only to our own institutions — giving little thought to the best interests our communities and the health of the nation as a whole.

I have been through a few moments approaching this level of retrenchment and my sense is that the more broadly, generously and strategically we approach the situation, the better the outcome for everyone. My first experience with this apparently counter-intuitive orientation was in Lawrence KS. Where, in response to the Reaganomics cutbacks, human service agencies banded together, to survey of the town’s residents (particularly those who used these services) on the programs and services they considered so integral to the community’s quality of life that saving them was crucial. The open-ended and community-centered approach won the admiration and support of decision-makers on public spending priorities as for the re-organized federal dollars — and for local dollars as well.

My humble suggestion for the day: why not try raising funds for another organization? Pick one you know is vital to the community at-large, but also vulnerable. Consider it “bread upon the waters,” laying a foundation for the kind of collaboration that can only serve us well in the trying days to come. As the passage from Ecclesiastes suggests, what goes around will come around.

More than ever, we need powerful, realistic and timely strategies to chart the right course out of this mess. Please send us your ideas, opinions and experiences.