Paul Light: Survival of the Fittest Wrong Path for Nonprofits and Communities

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March 10, 2011; Source: The Washington Post | In the Washington Post last week, Dr. Paul Light sounded an alarm about the laissez faire attitude of the sector as a whole to the failure of a few in its midst. Light does not argue with the fact that winnowing may occur as a result of the sector's continuing financial straights – what he is very concerned about is the real possibility that the wrong organizations will go under.

This could, he asserts, result in "service deserts" in many low-income communities. Some of these communities are served by relatively small nonprofits that have already been hollowed out by the last two years of downturn, he says. “The prevailing wisdom these days is that survival of the fittest should take its course, the only problem being that the fittest may not be the most valuable. There are some nonprofits that are extremely strong but no longer relevant, and others that are very weak but intensely important for strengthening communities, delivering services where no other resources exist and serving as harbingers of the social trust that Robert Putnam wrote about in Bowling Alone. Strengthening weak but important nonprofits is an imminently better investment for the sector than allowing moribund, perpetuity-seeking nonprofits to survive."

As NPQ has tracked the trends in the sector, we cannot but agree. Our recent report on the continuing low philanthropic investments in rural areas shows how this creates the real possibility that badly needed services in isolated communities may be lost. Light believes the same to be true of low-income communities in other areas. We'd love to hear your opinions on the likelihood of service deserts developing near you over the next year or so.—Ruth McCambridge

  • Laura Pierce

    I share this concern, and would add that in Seattle many of those smaller nonprofits serve a specific ethnic population or marginalized group (often very low income as well), and were formed because their constituency was not being effectively served by the mainstream, dominant culture providers.

    However, I have also witnessed how tenacious and committed these groups are–they have always been severely under-resourced, and yet have continued to operate against all odds. So, I’m not sure how this will play out.

    One question in my mind is whether some of these nonprofits can overcome their antipathy for the mainstream providers and join forces with them, achieving (she said idealistically) greater stability and a more culturally competent organization. Better yet, to preserve the “biodiversity” of the nonprofit sector, can we figure out effective ways to umbrella and support all the small organizations so they can retain their distinct identities?

  • wynetta wright

    as a small environmental organization that have worked in a community for 10yrs has been a hard but because of the impact of the people who live in this arear and the health issue that plauge us is horriable and at a third wrold state environmental health issues is a lonely position becase the people have lived this life for genarations and almost numb to the death of familey members with the same type of death that it seems the norm but the funding and the attention from the all sources are desert but when i go to schools and talk to the youth about the asthma onset and triggers it helps them understand and they make the differenc in helping the adults get a understanding of what they are going thur when they are in a onset or have been induring a trigger phase the community we live in has the highest rate of asthma in this zip code then the whole state of florida where is humanity

  • anita springer

    I work with a small to medium sized nonprofit in a wealthy community serving the underserved and often invisible parts of the population, e.g., state-supported families and children. It is true that there are generally too many charities attempting to serve the same populations and they are more interested in protecting their own turf and retaining their independence than in working together. Charities are traditionally a group that doesn’t work well together. There should be more cooperation and winnowing. Figure out who does what best and let another group take over the other parts. It would be more efficient operationally and they wouldn’t be competing for the same donor dollars. Consolidation of services makes a lot of sense but no nonprofit wants to be smaller or give up any of its programs — until they run out of money and are forced to close.

  • paula smith arrigoni

    This is such an important point. I think one related issue is the lack of funding to pay for capacity-building services for small, nascent, or just financially weak rural nonprofits.

    A second one is Board leadership. It’s difficult to find individuals with the right types of management skills, social connections, and understanding of how nonprofits operate (relying on subsidy to offset their costs) to effectively steward smaller, rural organizations.