Issues Facing Old-Line Nonprofits Differ from Those Facing New Nonprofits: Think Bambi Meets Godzilla

We’ve written various posts on the challenges of starting a new nonprofit (like this one), mostly because we get lots of calls from fairly new nonprofits or folks trying to get one off the ground. Last week, however, I got a call from an agency in a large east coast city that’s been operating for about 200 years. I’m not making this up. The nonprofit originally was an orphanage that morphed into a broad-based children’s services agency.*

Though the caller was delighted to recite the exceptional history of his nonprofit, I didn’t get excited, as we we’ve worked for many nonprofits that have been around for decades—including one in a big Midwestern city that started in 1860s as a “settlement house” in the vein of Jane Adams’s Hull House. By now Seliger + Associates is older than many nonprofits.

While the caller was interested in a standard-issue federal RFP that’s on the street, we also talked over the challenges of keeping an Ancien Régime agency going in the face of an endless onslaught of Nouveau Riche competitors. Nonprofits face the innovator’s dilemma too. They must evolve over time and not get stuck in the “these are the services we provide” trap. It helps that most long-established nonprofits have contracts to provide capitated services or services with handy third-party payers (e.g., foster care, family reunification, residential care, primary health care, substance abuse treatment, etc.). Capitated-service agencies have a base cash flow, which they supplement with fundraising and grants (that’s were we come in).

Unlike new agencies, which are struggling for recognition and any funding scraps they can find, the main challenges old-line agencies face are relevance, ossification, and the inevitable disputes that arise with donors and funders.

Old-line agency must meet emerging needs. For example, there is apparently an astounding, sudden and unexplained surge of unaccompanied Central American children crossing into Texas this year, and they are essentially begging to be “caught” by the Border Patrol. This could reach as many as 100,000 random kids this year, who will overwhelm the current residential care capacity in the border states. The border patrol turns these kids over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which then hands them off to DHHS for transportation and temporary or permanent—depending on your interpretation of immigration laws—resettlement in small and big cities across America.

Not surprisingly, the Obama administration is requesting $2 billion in new funding to address this human tidal wave or humanitarian crisis, once again depending on your point of view. I’m confident much of this money will end up as competitive grant opportunities from the DHHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). As the former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emanuel put it, “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

Say you’re our former midwestern client and have been around since the Civil War. You provide family and child support services but not residential care, so it’s essential to develop this capacity; thousands of Central American refugee children are likely to be dumped into your service area. You should meet this new crisis, as part of your mandate and mission, while at the same time bolstering your revenue with tidy ORR grants. This is a basic “win-win.”

Regarding ossification, old agencies are usually larger and bureaucratic, mimicking the funders that support them. It’s easy for a large, established nonprofit to become moribund, not only in the services they deliver, but also in the way in which services are delivered. Old agencies are less likely to adopt new technology and cultural practices—like contacting clients and conducing outreach through social media—because they do things the way they’ve always done things. Change is hard and inertia is seductive. This phenomenon is not limited to the nonprofit sector. Examples in business are common: huge companies like Motorola, Sears and IBM (before IBM reinvented itself under the remarkable CEO, Louis Gerstner) rise, lose focus or miss market shifts, and fall.

Finally, old-line nonprofits will often become embroiled in disputes with donors and funders. This can range from rich Mrs. Himmelfarb, who makes $100,000 annual donations, getting pissed off because she got seated at the wrong table at the nonprofit’s annual gala to the agency failing to submit required reports to the DOL for the agency’s YouthBuild grant. Once donors and/or funder program officers get annoyed with a large nonprofit, the organization may suddenly find itself in financial trouble.

Beneath the feet of every lumbering old-line dinosaur nonprofit are tiny new mammal nonprofits scouring around and trying to meet new community needs, provide nimble services in innovative ways, and eventually take away the big boy’s donations and grants.** The old-line nonprofit needs to address these upstarts by acting like Godzilla in Bambi Meets Godzilla, perhaps the best short film ever made.


* Fun fact: although it may be moving against the conventional wisdom to defend orphanages, Richard McKenzie explains why they’re often better than foster-style systems in “The Best Thing About Orphanages.” Saying “They’re better than the alternative” is not equivalent to saying, “They’re great!”

** Some grant programs are explicitly designed to provide challengers to incumbents; Community Health Centers (CHCs), for example, are eligible for “Service Area Competition” (SAC) grants. As readers of our e-mail newsletter know, the last two weeks have seen more than $150 million in SAC grants. Every geographic area in the U.S. is supposed to be covered by a SAC-funded agency, and every time a competition arises, new CHCs can try to wrest the grant from the existing grantee.

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