Resilient Nonprofits

Money doesn't grow on treesMyrto wrote about Raising Funds for Transition.  Several months ago, here in Los Angeles, we were discussing similar issues.  But thoughts which began with "how do we get money" soon ventured into a different realm:  "What does a sustainable service organization look like in this powerdown era and time of economic contraction?"

Here in the Transition movement, we understand that with the end of cheap oil, we will experience an inevitable (and likely severe) economic contraction.  In our Transition Trainings we discuss the fallacies of the Industrial Growth Complex.  We know what lies ahead:  simpler times, less affluent times, less cash available, and necessarily more community participation in every single aspect of life.

Nonprofit organizations won't be immune.  Already, most nonprofits are struggling for funding, and the fun's just beginning.  Just like the energy surplus which is disappearing with the end of cheap oil, the cash surplus which used to fund nonprofits is disappearing with the credit/banking/economic crunch.  We have witnessed "peak nonprofit." 

It is absolutely absurd, in this post-peak day and age, to set up a nonprofit organization with the expectation that it will run on society's cash surplus (i.e. donations and grants).  This old model, the nonprofit model we've grown up with, is a phenomenon of pre-peak excess.

We have around us several models for service organizations:

  • churches/faith organizations, which live on tithing, donations from members, fundraisers, donations from wills of the deceased, etc.  Some restrict services to members-only, and some serve much more broadly, varies considerably.
  • traditional not-for-profits like the Sierra Club, which exist on grants and membership and donations.  Many serve quite broadly.
  • clubs, which rely on membership to fund them and generally restrict their services to the paying members
  • government, which funds itself based on legally-enforced taxation but is thus able to serve all.
  • if you can think of further models, please add to the comments.

Transition initiatives ("TIs") by definition must serve quite broadly -- they must be inclusive within the community.  We aren't setting up TIs to rescue "members only" from the horrors of peak oil and civilization collapse.  Rather, we're setting up Energy Descent Action Plans and new parallel structures with the intent to serve the entireties of our local communities.  Thus our organizational model must reflect that.  The club and membership models won't work because we have to set up organizations that can and will serve a very broad base.

We're working within a new era -- an era of descent, of contraction, of coming together, of people having more time (albeit through unemployment); an era of less stuff and more sharing, an era where new things and glossy presentation will become far less important than sheer ability to get the job done.  It will be a more localized era with less need to travel; an era of art and creative solutions because the "usual way" (i.e. the old buy-it consumer way) doesn't work anymore. 

Doesn't it seem appropriate that we be using a new view of organization to go with this new era? 

As we rethink society for a post-petroleum future, it's opportunity to rethink nonprofit structures, too.  Rather than looking for how to fund Transition, and binding ourselves to a model of eternally-scrapping-for-fundraising ("Where can we fundraise?"  "Where can we get grants?"  "Where can we get money?"), creating new nonprofits in a time of economic contraction presents us with opportunity to rethink the idea of service-based organizations altogether.

A sustainable nonprofit in an era of powerdown and economic contraction must be able to flex and adapt to circumstances.  It cannot carry debt.  A loan is borrowing against the promise of a brighter future; yet we are likely now experiencing the brightest (conventional) economic times many of us will ever see.  A sustainable nonprofit cannot carry pricey leases or heavy salary obligations.  The operations of a sustainable nonprofit must be designed such that it can weather the long-term, because we need our TIs to be around and functioning for the long-term!

What about the cash-free nonprofit (or at least a lower-cash nonprofit):  In one of our Los Angeles local groups, we recently held an event about ways a neighborhood could share finances -- everything from garden sharing to alternative currencies to group purchasing.   In the course of preparing for this event, we created a chart which compares bartering, time banking, local currencies, and LETS (Local Economic Trading Systems).  These represent an alternative view of economics, and for the same reasons an individual might be drawn to cash-free or lower-cash ways of meeting his needs, our nonprofit organizations could benefit.  One online pamphlet, "The Community Way," describes a scrip-type program which could possibly help support a nonprofit's cash needs.  More progressively, the TI could simply become yet another participant in a community-wide LETS system (see video).

What about the employee-free nonprofit:  Many of the recent efforts of advocates of "the green economy" are geared toward development of jobs (as in, traditional white-collar desk jobs which pay nice W2 salaries) and "growing this sector."  Yet we in the Transition movement understand that all sectors of society are being impacted by the end of cheap oil; all sectors are shrinking; and if we review biocapacity/global footprint constraints, we'll understand why no sectors can possibly expect to be growing, whether green or not-green. (for further discussion of this issue see page 6 and prior of this pdf).  In a world of shrinking cash resources, creating new "nice W2 salaries" of any kind is tenuous-to-unlikely.  The age of the salaried nonprofit executive is probably nearing its end.  And in fact salaried executives (representing a single, influential viewpoint) might be in conflict with the circular-structured, working-group-representative, engaged-creativity models that our Transition Trainings are teaching us to use.  For clerical and administrative tasks, barter-based labor, time bank-based labor, LETS system-based labor, and volunteerism are all much more likely scenarios.

What about the premises-free nonprofit:  It requires networking, but hey, isn't that one of the 12 Steps of Transition anyway?  Here in the Los Angeles area, our various local groups are using on a regular and ongoing basis the hall of an Episcopal church, the hall of a Methodist church, the premises of a yoga center, the open space at a community garden in a public school, some private homes, a meeting room in a public library, and they've been offered a room in a private school. Each of these has required us to form working relationships with the premises owners, fostering connections which in many cases are becoming supportive, rich, mutually enlightening, and interdependent.  We didn't just "find" these generous people; we co-evolved and grew together.

What about the legalities-free nonprofit:  Our Los Angeles initiating group has sustained more than 4 years of ongoing, active operations without any legal existence.  It isn't a 501(c)(3).  It isn't a corporation.  It doesn't even have a checking account.  Admittedly, this type of invisible operations probably won't work for all circumstances, but it may work for many! 

As we talk about reducing consumption, our TIs are a chance to model stuff-free behavior.  The challenge is:  how much can you do with how little?  If you think about the typical office setup with a Permaculture eye, you can see the waste.  TIs have to be different.  In many cases, office equipment and personal property isn't necessary; most of these can be short-term borrowed as needed, or dealt with in some form of co-op arrangement.  We don't need single-use items, and reducing paper is a no-brainer.  Glossy, expensive, full-corporate-services web presence isn't necessary (realize that vast swathes of the general population have limited or low-tech computer capabilities so they can't access all that fancy stuff -- rather than "better communications," in many cases it actually deepens demographic divides).  Keep it simple.  It's hard for us to remember when we've grown up amidst a more-more-more world that this time around it's the message that counts, not the trappings.  Our new view of organization, our new view of nonprofits will have to reflect that.

Each time our Los Angeles initiating group has been faced with cash needs, it has become opportunity to ask the unshopping questions:  "Do we really need this? Can we get by without this?"  In true Permaculture fashion, we ask, "Could we meet this need with borrowed, repurposed, or scavenged items?  How could we do it with the skills within our community?"  In addition to ongoing community meetings and reskilling programs, our group has constructed a centerpiece community garden on a shoestring budget.  We've borrowed AV equipment.  We've used web design and graphic design skills of TI members, and have developed other skills internally (reskilling).  It is possible!

Create opportunities for people to give -- of their time, their stuff, their creativity and ingenuity.  The process engages people in a way that writing a check never, ever will.  It binds people to the cause.  They feel a part of that garden, that project, that event, that journey.  And isn't this ultimately the Transition goal:  finding ways to get people thinking and acting differently, finding ways to get people connected to this process, inspiring greater participation.  Nonconventional organization structures and progressive financial arrangements can become yet one more tool to make this happen.

It simply (simply?!) requires thinking differently about finances, rethinking our sense of organization and nonprofit, forming partnerships, and building community.

1 comment

David Eggleton wrote 10 years 36 weeks ago

People Powered Initiatives

My subject line speaks of a vision some of us had in the Boston Sustainability Community five years ago.  Little or no money, a task or project focus, much formative evaluation, intrinsic rewards of working together with awareness and care, and continuous sharing of learnings with the larger sustainability community.  It was somewhat inspired by the affinity groups I had known in the nonviolent antinuclear Clamshell Alliance in the late '70s.

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