An article in the Dallas Morning News talks about the terrible toll being taken on even the largest North Texan charities because of the pandemic. But in some of these cases, we might suggest the pandemic is simply accelerating trends that already exist, some of which are not exactly secret.
Nonprofits flow in and out of relevance for the public, sometimes because they cannot stay current, or they complete their missions, but sometimes it is because they violate their relationships with donors and the public. These problems, caused by breaking trust, are in a different category of pre-existing condition than what’s being experienced by those who, by nature of their programming, revenue models, and community commitments, are at severe and immediate risk—along with their communities. The sector’s advocates should help the public make these distinctions during these difficult times.
For instance, NPQ has often written about one of the Morning News’ examples—Susan G. Komen, which has been in a precipitous decline for some years after defunding Planned Parenthood. Simply put, they lost traction with much of their base at that time and have been cutting local chapters and their overall budget ever since. This article focuses only on the present, reporting that the group has taken “extreme measures” to survive the pandemic, including laying off over 20 percent of its staff, cutting pay across the board, giving up its Dallas office, and consolidating its nearly 60 entities into a single charity.
What follows is a sad and telling statement from CEO Paula Schneider: “We’ve made more major decisions in the past 120 days than the previous 15 years.”
Right. Nancy Brinker is still at the organization, though shuffled upstairs, and Komen has never admitted its culpability in a badly conceived scheme to dump portions of its national woman-based constituency to cozy up to the GOP.
Here’s what we wrote about the state of the nonprofit’s finances last year:
We take another look at the financial state of Susan G. Komen, which started a revenue slide in 2012 when it created a fissure between itself and a good portion of its active constituency by announcing it would no longer fund Planned Parenthood. Though they eventually reversed the decision, they appeared to have little organizational humility or insight related to the situation. Not only was the financial effect immediate, but, as we examine the situation even seven years out, the decline continues apace.
Komen booked $270 million in its fiscal year ending March 31, 2013, compared to $348 million the year prior and $367 million in FY 2011. This constitutes a decline of $97 million, or 26.4 percent of income, in two years. The drop was most precipitous in the area of unrestricted “contributions, sponsorships and entry fees,” adding up to a full $100 million. But when we fast forward into the organization’s 2018 Form 990, we see the slide continued, with revenue hitting successive record lows from 2015 to 2018, when it brought in only approximately $82 million—a fraction of what it brought in in 2011, before the scandal.
Add to that the fact that the organization has run deficits through most of these years of between $7 million and $10 million, and you begin to get the full picture. But the organization may have begun to adjust to its new reality; Komen’s most recent 990 shows the organization managed to reduce the size of its deficit in 2018 to $3 million.
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Thus, Komen’s problems can be traced not to the pandemic but to its disrespect of its own base, and that is chronic. The pandemic will have had a severe effect on what remains of its events, but it created its own pre-existing condition.
The Other Realm of Crisis and Pre-existing Conditions
Just as nonprofits have been dealing with the harsh consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, at the same time, they have also been facing a vastly changed landscape around racial equity. Here, too, the notion of “pre-existing condition” is relevant as an expression of those conditions that are self-inflicted through a disrespect of constituency. This past week, the Whitney Museum administered yet one more blow to itself through its staging of an exhibition of the work of Black artists which it had purchased on the cheap from a charity auction.
The Whitney, of course, has been the focus of a great deal of organizing of late. In July of 2019, vice chairman Warren Kanders resigned after months of heated protest. As Hyperallergic reported at the time, artists and activists objected to Kanders’ company, Safariland, which produces chemical weapons and other munitions used by Israel on Palestinians as well as by US Customs and Border Protection agents against migrants at the US-Mexico border. Just before Kanders’ resignation, according to The Art Newspaper, eight artists asked the Whitney to remove their work from the Whitney Biennial, saying in an open letter, “The Museum’s continued failure to respond in any meaningful way to growing pressure from artists and activists has made our participation untenable.”
Discussing the recent incident of the now-cancelled exhibition, Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a time of change, Rahel Aima of The Art Newspaper says, “The crux of the controversy is the lack of both transparency and consent exhibited by the Whitney.”
“The artists were informed of their inclusion in the show via an email from Whitney staff,” Aima explains, “stating their work had been acquired and requesting their biographical information and an image of the work, with a promise of a lifetime artist pass to the museum as compensation.”
Aima quotes one of the artists, Fields Harrington, as saying, “I don’t think that it’s an acquisition; I think it’s theft.”
Questions of who sits on the board, and whose money to take, and whose art to pay for and exhibit have been front and center for museums and other cultural institutions for years now. And yet, it seems those in power at the Whitney, including its governing body, still act from a place of supremacy, which Oxford defines as “the state or condition of being superior to all others in authority, power, or status.” Their institutional habits and practices communicate in no uncertain terms: It is a privilege to be exhibited here, or even to take in art here, so you’ll accept our terms.
A Time for Discernment
Some sectoral advocates, as well as uncritical media, may think the confluence of pandemic, economic recession, and demands for racial justice make this a perfect time to underscore how much good nonprofits do and how much philanthropy they need and deserve. As leaders in the sector ourselves, though, our mandate is far more complex. While we do indeed want to lift up the invaluable contributions of effective organizations, we have to tell the truth about the challenges that long predate this unprecedented year and help the public prioritize where to focus their support. We understand that large nonprofits will be feeling the strictures of these times, as will small ones, but let’s remember that with growth comes increased responsibilities to remain affirmatively responsive and on track. No one in this sector should be considered “too big to fail” if they fall out of pace with constituents over extended periods of time. Our advocacy is needed for the groups that remain, even through much struggle, on point and in the mix with their communities—who are, themselves, very much still at risk.