It’s not a “Nonprofit Problem” it’s a Community Problem

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The Austin area boasts a rich and vibrant nonprofit sector, with nonprofit organizations actively working to strengthen our community in hundreds of different ways, including being among the first to respond when tragedy happens like last week’s devastating floods. At the same time, most nonprofits are small and under-resourced. In fact, our new research on the Austin nonprofit sector highlights that nearly three-quarters of all public charities in our area have income of less than $100,000. In addition, less than 15% of organizations have any paid staff and fewer than 40% consider themselves “financially strong.”

Nonprofits in our community are struggling to meet the ever growing needs in our community. While the nonprofit sector is a vital part of addressing the challenges facing our community, they can’t do it alone. So how can YOU be part of the solution?

Invest in proven (and innovative) programs

There are many proven programs that are already making a measurable difference in our community. Yet often these programs only touch a small number of lives. The reason: Many nonprofits lack the capital needed to expand or “scale up” their efforts. These organizations are filled with passionate and committed staff, but as they try to serve more in need, their efforts are often stymied by a lack of access to growth capital.

It is also critical we encourage nonprofits who are developing new, innovative approaches to addressing community challenges. While these programs might not yet be fully proven or “evidence-based” they nevertheless may have significant potential. These organizations need to build their capacity and gather data to demonstrate their effectiveness.

What you can do:

  • Serve on a board. There are thousands of open board seats in our community and a strongly engaged board can play a major role in an organization’s success. Check out Greenlights’ online marketplace, OnBoard, for open board positions in Central Texas nonprofits.
  • Donate your financial and human capital to nonprofits focused on proven or innovative programs to serve the community. Consider becoming part of a pooled investment effort to amplify your reach, such as Greenlights’ Social Venture Partners.
  • Support innovative funding options, such as alternative financing options (like Pay for Success) for promising mission-driven organizations.
  • If you are a funder, support nonprofit capacity building efforts, including data collection and evaluation. As nonprofit thought leader Vu Le recently noted, “Getting good data takes resources…Nonprofits must pay for data and funders need to support it and take some risks, especially with smaller nonprofits who may not yet have a track record on data collection.”

Embrace collective approaches

While the expansion of proven and promising community programs can create significant community impact, there are also many challenges that won’t be solved by single organizations, no matter how large or innovative their programs. The scale and complexity of these type of problems will require a collective approach to achieve systems-wide change. That means that individuals from the public, private and nonprofit sectors, as well as grassroots organizations and program beneficiaries, must come together to create a common vision for change and common road-maps.

What you can do:

  • Check out the Community Advancement Network (CAN) Dashboard which includes 17 socio-economic indicators which provide an overview of the health and well-being of Travis County. By tracking these indicators, CAN and our community can better identify and understand where collective focus is needed.
  • Become part of a coalition, network, or systems-level change initiative. What are the issues you are most passionate about? Affordable housing, environmental quality, health and nutrition, access to mental health services, early childhood education? There are powerful examples of collaborative efforts taking place in our community. Learn more about these collective efforts and consider ways to get involved. (For examples of systems level change efforts in our community, check out Greenlights’ On the Verge research and the CAN dashboard)
  • Support community-wide improvement efforts in ways both large and small. Your organization, whether it be in the private, public or nonprofit sector, may be in a position to take on a meaningful leadership role in a systems-wide change effort. You may be a business leader or entrepreneur who is ready to bring your knowledge and expertise to bear on the problems this community is facing. Or you may be a concerned citizen who is ready to offer your unique skills and abilities, as well as your time and treasure. Everyone has something to bring to the table in order to make our community a better place for all.

Despite Austin’s rise as one of the country’s most desirable places to live, our community faces significant social problems including poverty, lack of economic mobility, and health and educational disparities. The complexity of these issues requires that we work together, regardless of the “sector” you sit in. The vulnerabilities in our community are not nonprofit problems or government problems, they are community problems and it will take community-wide effort and engagement to truly “move the needle.” How will you get involved?


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