Focus on impact vital for nonprofits

Tom Lambeth
Tom Lambeth

 [Editor’s Note: The following is the last of three excerpts from the keynote address given at the 2010 statewide conference of the N.C. Center for Nonprofits Sept. 30 by Tom Lambeth,  senior fellow and former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem.]

Tom Lambeth

Money is being raised even in this economy.

Most capital campaigns have not been cancelled, and while nonprofits may need to adjust payment schedules, many are finding the times actually inspire people to be more concerned about the success and the future of those nonprofits they support.

The Center on Wealth and Philanthropy recently reported it believes charitable giving will return to the pre-recession level perhaps this year, but almost certainly next year.

If that happens, we should take the lessons learned out of these leaner times to do what we do better than we did in times of plenty.

I think one of the most important lessons is to show how our programs really do change lives – not just outcomes, which we have always been good at doing (it is not difficult to count meals served) – but impact.

How has a community been strengthened and how have people been empowered to bring about change?

It is now 41 years since the tax reform act of 1969 that focused attention on the role of foundations in America.

It is likely that the drive for tax reform, for restructuring the tax code, may result in more changes for funders and their nonprofit grantees.

There is also some danger that all of this – a new 990, greater demands from funders, greater government oversight – will help to widen the gap between large and small nonprofits.

But a good sign in this respect is the appearance of consulting firms designed specifically for smaller nonprofits.

We have to be careful, as well, that in our reliance on technology to improve both grantseeking and grantmaking, we do not create a gap between small and large nonprofits.

In such times, we are also urged that there be greater collaboration among nonprofits.

Also not a bad thing. But how do we achieve that without losing the values of competition that are good for all institutions within a democratic society.

Partnerships are good, but sometimes they just cannot work. We – both grantseekers and grantmakers – need to avoid forcing relationships that are doomed from the start.

This is a time when many turn to nonprofits to take up the slack between need and government funding.

Sometimes that is the thing to do, but we truly benefit from the great mix of for-profit and nonprofit institutions, from government-funded and privately-funded efforts.

In the end, the taxpayers and their representatives will decide how much we value the education of our children.

If we end poverty, it will be because of an improved state economy driven by the private sector with encouragement, and importantly, with regulation from the public.

Nonprofits can be valuable in enriching that mix with ideas as well as dollars. We need to preserve them if we are to preserve the character of our state.

We must do all of this without abandoning our ambitions as nonprofits or devaluing our missions. We can be smart and have a social conscience. We can be both successful and responsive to the needs of those around us. We can be both budget balancers and community enrichers.

In the final analysis, what we are all about is people. Our organizations and institutions are about people organizing to deliver services to people, to empower people, to advocate for people to enrich and educate people.

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