I’ve lived long enough to have weathered a few snow storms. It feels like the panic and hype escalate with every passing year, to the point where, just at the hint of a big snow, the shelves of the grocery stores are cleared of milk, bread, and (according to my friends’ Facebook posts) junk food and liquor. It’s true, blizzards do pose a substantial risk, particularly for those who are unsheltered, those with tenuous health and those who live in vulnerable, isolated areas. But for the most part, we are not in danger, and we just need to get back to shoveling.
I was thinking about this today as I was working from home–no snow days for the self-employed, I’m afraid–when I read yet another foundation’s guidelines stating that funds may not be used for general operating support. In my 20+ years of applying for grants, I’ve seen that hundreds of times, and I still grit my teeth every time I see it.
For those who don’t work in nonprofits, you may not realize how very tight nonprofits’ budgets generally are. My friends who have “crossed over” from corporate to nonprofit usually lament at some point the loss of perks and the ability just to purchase whatever they need to do their jobs.
Plenty of smart people have noted that donors’ expectations that nonprofits keep their overhead costs at 10% or less is unreasonable. No successful business would operate that lean, because they know they need to hire talented people to work for them, and pay them a competitive wage. They know that they need a working computer network in order to stay connected. They need decent furniture and office space. Yet, of all the dozens of nonprofits I’ve worked for over my career, I have yet to find one that is adequately staffed, operates in a reasonably serviceable office space AND has a fully functional network. They might have one of these things, but never all three.
So why won’t foundations fund general operating expenses? Do they feel like they can only make a difference if they fund targeted programs? Okay, but someone has to run those programs, and they need a desk and a computer to do that. Do they feel like they don’t want to “waste” their money on boring things like executive directors and light bills? Every executive director I’ve met has been anything but boring. Passionate, yes, Dedicated, certainly. Boring, never. And all of these executive directors worry daily about how they are going to pay the light bill.
Nonprofits operate every day like a blizzard is going to hit tomorrow. Because, let’s face it, that might just happen. They might lose a key grant, or they might be hit with an unexpected expense they don’t know how to pay for, and then they might have to lay off staff or cut back services. Meanwhile, the people who rely on nonprofits, such as the homeless, students, Veterans, animals, or the hungry, are left out in the cold when nonprofits can’t afford to fund their mission.
Foundations, corporations and individual donors need to understand that nonprofits aren’t wasting your money. They’re doing important work. If you want to be sure of that, just go visit them and see them in action. I guarantee, you will be convinced.
It’s time for all of us to help nonprofits put the proverbial bread and milk in their fridge to stave off crises by providing them with general operating funds.