69-Year-Old Nonprofit in Cincinnati Closes Its Doors—Isolated Incident, or Part of a Trend?

Print Share on LinkedIn More


July 23, 2013; Cincinnati.com


For the past 69 years, Bridges for a Just Community has been promoting diversity and fairness in the Cincinnati. The website describes the organization as the Queen City’s “leading human relations organization since 1944 and…a founding member of the National Federation for Just Communities, a coalition of like-minded organizations working across America to bring the values of diversity, inclusion and social justice to our communities, schools, workplaces and institutions.” But in a recent news release, Bridges has announced that it would cease doing business in September.

In its 2012 Report to the Community, Bridges describes a very robust range of work, collaborating with Public Allies to promote its mission and values among young community leaders, and a remarkable study in partnership with the University of Cincinnati looking at the community’s changing attitudes towards racial equality, fairness, and inclusion.

The organization’s history includes active involvement around several racial incidents in the southern Ohio city. But for this writer, one of the most lasting and important legacies would be its announcement in 1994 of a campaign to create the National Underground Railroad Museum, which is truly remarkable. As a reminder of Cincinnati’s important role in the anti-slavery movement, it is a poignant and beautiful addition to an exciting and lively, albeit somewhat wealthy and business-oriented, riverfront district.

So what happened? The news release cites a number of causes. Changing attitudes in the city mean that the organization has practically put itself out of work, although the results of the previously mentioned study with the University might contradict that theory. Of course, money is also an issue, and Bridges was apparently hit hard during the Great Recession of the past few years. The organization’s IRS Form 990 supports this premise. In 2007, the organization was the beneficiary of a significant bump in support, moving to over $1.5 million in donations. However, by 2010, this had dissipated. Despite significant salary reductions and other cost cutting, the 2011 filing with the IRS shows the organization losing over $100,000.

In a city that has a history of troubled race relations, but is very proud of its history helping slaves find freedom, why is a venerable organization like this one in trouble? With a strong mission, a desire to forge powerful collaborations, and designation as a Better Business Bureau accredited organization, why are donations slipping to the point of having to close their doors? Is this an isolated incident of an organization going past maturity and into decline, or is it an example of something broader?

Press coverage of nonprofits going out of business is sporadic, as some may not issue press releases or otherwise attract much attention, but occasional reports do emerge. Here are a few recent stories from around the country:

  • In Las Vegas, Safe Faith United, a domestic violence nonprofit organization that helps rescue women from violent relationships, is now itself in need of saving, according to the website of a local TV station. The issue is a lack of funding.
  • In Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, Cattrap Inc., which is “devoted to spaying and neutering feral cats will be closing its feral cat shelter at the end of the year,” according to the Vineyard Gazette.
  • Learning Ally, an organization that develops audiobooks and other learning resources for visually impaired individuals, has shut down almost all of its recording operations around the country due to loss of federal funding, according to Noozhawk in Santa Barbara, California.

These are three isolated examples, randomly drawn from Internet reports, but it does appear that many nonprofits are closing their doors, and that most are doing so because of a lack of financial support.—Rob Meiksins

  • Paul Komarek

    I see several themes playing out.

    Bridges and other non-workforce charities have suffered with the United Way’s shift to a community impact model. What doesn’t support the current or future workforce needs of the business community is simply ignored, never funded.

    Local government is also strapped for cash. Cincinnati used to support a healthy mix of human service agencies. Now it has reduced its participation to a smidgen of its previous levels, and subcontracts out administration of the programs it does still fund (to the United Way).

    The focus on outcomes also distorts how people view charities. Disability-related charities that support amenities for people in tough circumstances, animal shelter work, anti-violence programs for people in tough circumstances all have trouble producing money-measurable results.

    Finally, it’s worth noting the social distancing that comes with increased income disparities. If we don’t share the same civic spaces, why should we support the same charities?

  • Terry Fernsler

    While we would like to believe that after many years of working toward their visions, nonprofits are going out of business because they have fulfilled their purposes, but, unfortunately, this is rarely the case. There is probably a variety of reasons for organizations disbanding–the majority of the board for the last organization for which I worked simply got tired of the time it took to govern and otherwise participate–one that has not been raised is lack of support from younger generations, many members of which are starting their own organizations.

  • Don

    The lack of funds is a symptom rather than a problem. Donors and other funding sources are loyal, generous, and passionate supporters when they believe the organization they are supporting is relevant, effective, and valuable.

    What your story points out is that in Cincinnati still needs help with justice issues but the community no longer feels that the organization is relevant, effective, and valuable. Does the organization lack relevance because it is success with racial issues implies it lacks the skills to be successful in the new normal? Has the organization failed to demonstrate it can be effective handling the 21st Century justice issues? Does the community think the organization is still trying to solve last century’s problems and therefore lacks relevance today? Does the community now value something that historically the organization has never offered or offers very little of? Is it a combination of those and other factors? Those are the questions management should have asked and answered before now.

    It is impossible, based upon the information currently available, to know the reasons Cincinnati has reduced its support. What we do know is that donors are consumers. Their interests shift along with their priorities. Their money follows their interests and priorities. Remaining relevant and valuable based upon their shifting interests and priorities is the only way to survive.

    This is not an isolated circumstance. It is not part of a trend. It is a natural part of the evolution of activity. Things become obsolete. It is management’s responsibility to prevent obsolescence. This is true regardless of the type (nonprofit, for profit, government agency, etc.) or the size, market, or product or service offered. Reduced financial support should be a wakeup call for management rather than an excuse, justification, or explanation for why an organization closes.

    Success for every nonprofit, for profit, and government agency depends on remaining relevant, valuable, and effective as defined by those it serves (clients, funders, community at large, etc.).

  • Michael Malamut

    Bridges for a Just Community was the Cincinnati Chapter of National Conference of Christians and Jews, which was supported by an active memebrship base. National Conference of Christians and Jews changed its name to National Conference for Communities and Justice. As with other organizations that have gotten away from their roots and “dismembered,” becoming dependent on corporate, government, and foundation support instead of cultivating an active and involved membership, they find that their funders can be fical. It takes years to gain the loyalty of active members, and their connection must be maintained, but once they identify with an organization, they can create a loyal and stable support base for decades.

  • Linda S

    [QUOTE=Paul Komarek:8578]I see several themes playing out.

    Bridges and other non-workforce charities have suffered with the United Way’s shift to a community impact model. What doesn’t support the current or future workforce needs of the business community is simply ignored, never funded.

    Thank you Paul Komarek, for articulating something I’ve been thinking but hadn’t said outright until now. I see this in a lot of corporate giving, very strongly — “my” United Way has been absent from the scene in most ways for some time now so that hasn’t been as obvious.

    Many people today seem to have a view of charities that says you serve my needs first, and then I (might) support your program. I grew up believing that philanthropy is giving without expectation of getting in return. I’m not talking about a particular generation, we see this expectation from people from lots of different circumstances and ages. Many nonprofits cannot likely do well if they must finance their programs before they win support.

    Thank you Rob Meiksins and NPQ for always thought-provoking content!