Business & Economy

Schubart: Pandemic provides opportunity for non-profit rethinking

Bill Schubart, a retired businessman, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. 

Pandemics force behavioral change. Foresighted leaders explore and initiate strategic change – or not.

While the business and government sectors struggle to understand what changes are needed to secure their futures, the nonprofit (for-mission) sector is equally roiled by the pandemic’s impacts and opportunities.

With about 4,500 nonprofits in Vermont, employing one in seven Vermonters and generating some $2B in salaries – accounting for more than 20% of the economy – this is a good time for taking stock so as to become as effective as possible, even though there will always be some mission overlap and duplication, if not outright competition. Vermont’s best nonprofits are mission-driven, not ego- or overhead-driven. And, in fairness, a significant number of these nonprofits provide much of the overall well-being for Vermonters. And among them are the many community churches dotting our townscapes working alongside our best social service, education, healthcare, cultural, and environmental organizations.

But major changes in philanthropy and in foundations’ philosophies of giving, accountability, and impact in recent years mean that Vermont 501©3s face increasingly stiff headwinds from funders. In a time of scarcity and enhanced need, the whole sector will be held to higher account and the governing boards of nonprofits will have to confront their institution’s relevance and delivery-on-mission, if not its survival.

I believe one of the most critical inquiries boards and leadership should pursue at this juncture is exploring and mapping what organizations do the same or similar work and what partnership links might be forged to ensure that more organizational resources fund mission rather than simply the human and physical overhead. For example, if an organization’s mission is to alleviate hunger, they can create a planetary map of all organizations doing similar work and reach out to each to determine how partnerships or even mergers might better achieve shared mission goals.

Another critical exercise is to devise a plan to deliver on a mission that looks upstream and downstream to see how the organization might better invest resources in upstream prevention rather than downstream remediation and see what creative partnerships emerge.

In human services, especially, the organizational goal should be to confront problems upstream, not just palliate the pain they cause downstream.

In subsistence missions such as food security and housing, an organization might partner with other organizations to build systems that increase their availability. For example, in food insecurity, an organization might look to and partner with other nonprofits working in regional food supply-chain development, community gardening, community-supported agriculture (CSAs), gleaning, salvaging food waste, and the like.

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In housing, while we must continue to focus on providing emergency shelter, we might also partner with government and business sectors to understand impediments to the development of affordable housing. We must find ways to honor historic preservation and environmental concerns while meeting the economic needs of Vermonters when they conflict.

By way of example, Montpelier desperately needs affordable housing, as an ageing population which can no longer afford their large wood-frame houses or their homesteads in Montpelier’s rural sprawl seek more energy and space-efficient quarters in town. Several notable housing projects in Montpelier have been derailed or made unduly expensive due to interventions by historic preservation authorities. The purpose of historic preservation is to preserve the historic beauty of our past in a way that is economically self-sustaining (see Landmark Trust USA). Given the unknowns we face and their new imperatives, we will need to compromise somewhat and prioritize the wellbeing of Vermonters.

An organization that deals with “troubled” youth might take its experience, paddle upstream to explore causes and partner with those using trauma-informed family counselling at the earliest stages of discovery to minimize the downstream damage of adverse childhood experiences. Abuse, hunger, addicted parents, and abandonment are all early drivers of the “troubled” component of their mission to help the young. This will have beneficial cost-impacts downstream in “special ed,” healthcare, and criminal justice. I’m with those who say that “the goal of a social-service nonprofit should be to put itself out of business.”

Environmental impacts are no different. Ultimately, it’s less expensive to reduce or eliminate source-point pollution such as excessive, unrecyclable consumer packaging, invest in stormwater run-off systems and community sewage treatment plants, and further regulate the use of on-farm chemical soil additives and manure runoff into adjacent waterways than it is to “clean up” our lakes and waterways, to say nothing of the aquifers from which we draw our drinking water. (In a report issued in July of last year, State Auditor Doug Hoffer questioned the effectiveness of the $66M spent so far on mitigating ongoing damage to the Lake Champlain basin.)

Also, it’s one thing to swim and bathe in chemicals, it’s another to ingest them. Erin Brockovich, about whom a best-selling movie was made in 2000, recently wrote a disturbing column in the Guardian detailing how pervasive the chemicals in our drinking supplies have become.

“We are in a water crisis beyond anything you can imagine. Pollution and toxins are everywhere, stemming from the hazardous wastes of industry and agriculture. We’ve got more than 40,000 chemicals on the market today with only a few hundred regulated. We’ve had industrial byproducts discarded into the ground and into our water supply for years. This crisis affects everyone – rich or poor, black or white, Republican or Democrat. Communities everywhere think they are safe when they are not.”  

Vermont is held together by the combined services of the government, business, and nonprofit sectors. Nonprofits fill gaps in public education, healthcare, social services, the arts and humanities, food and housing security, the environment, animal welfare, and many other areas. We’re indeed dependent on our best nonprofits.

A global pandemic has obliterated the norms of our existence and called on us all to rethink how we coexist with nature and one another. Meanwhile, our members, funders, and foundations are looking more carefully at our organization’s effective delivery on mission, our diversity, equity and inclusiveness, and our willingness to collaborate with other similarly-missioned or upstream-downstream organizations. It’s vital that Vermont’s nonprofits up their game, rethink their purpose and better measure their effectiveness. Philanthropy is finite… and changing.

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Bill Schubart

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