Welcome to the Fall 2009 issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly. Recently, I have heard the word precipice repeated in conversations with people across the country. It has been used to describe an early round of nonprofit closings in what promises to be an extended downturn in the “real” economy.
In some cases, those closing their doors are not weak in terms of profile or contributions. What they share, however, is a fatal vulnerability in their funding mix, where the loss of one funding source can bring the system crashing down. This may happen only gradually, and the causes may differ: a key state contract may be cut, earned income may dry up, a major funder may decide an organization is no longer a priority. But in each case, the effect is much the same. Once a funding vacuum opens up, organizational leadership is stuck with a decision: is recovery possible, and is recovery worth it?
To some extent, we are all part of a large crapshoot. Some organizations that depend on a single income stream will find that this source holds steady; some will find that it does not. An organization’s closing does not reflect its value or competence.
Larger political, philanthropic, and economic realities are at work.
What worries me is that we may lose valuable community and national infrastructure and that this infrastructure may take years to rebuild. But, as Langston Hughes put it, “We have tomorrow bright before us like a flame.” So we have to look at this period as the chaos from which a new order will be born, and I see the seeds of that new order emerging in the communities I have visited recently.
This emergence is what we need to focus on. What do we want to support, and how do we act accordingly? These questions bring to mind a quote from D.H. Lawrence, which is apropos as we approach uncharted territory. “When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego, and when we escape like squirrels turning in the cages of our personality and get into the forests again, we shall shiver with cold and fright but things will happen to us so that we don’t know ourselves. Cool, unlying life will rush in, and passion will make our bodies taut with power, we shall stamp our feet with new power and old things will fall down, we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like burnt paper.”
I am not entirely comfortable with such an open embrace of this new order myself, but we can’t turn away now. All we can do is help sculpt and define it.