Based on how often marginalized people talk about the power of “community”, especially within the realm of grassroots activism, one would imagine the non-profit industry would have evolved into a flourishing ecosystem of recyclable free-flowing skills, bartered services, and shared progressive ideas by now.

Yet, when you think about how many grassroots groups and non-profit organizations are working on the same exact issues and, unfortunately, due to this overcrowding, are often fighting each for resources in an unhealthily competitive manner (e.g. hoarding funding opportunities, barring access to resources, guarding intellectual capital, etc.) it’s easy to conclude that, often enough, this is not the case.

Let me put this in context: there is a funding crisis, everywhere; not just in the US or in the UK, or even in Africa, but globally.

In the U.S., the financial crisis didn’t just negatively impact the wall street suits, or even the industrial blue-collars, but the many grantmaking foundations that have provided the steady source of funding to non-profits for years. As a result of Wall Street’s snafu, a number of foundations have needed to significantly reduce the size of their grants; a few of the larger ones have even merged. As I’m quickly learning via my ongoing Southern Africa social media project, the effect of this can be felt all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, too. Downes Murray International, an African fundraising consulting firm writes:

“While some major Western donors to Africa, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, plan to maintain or increase their giving, many are scaling back their efforts in Africa in order to concentrate shrinking resources on projects closer to home.”

Here in South Africa, in an attempt to slow down the funding drain, governments have significantly cut back subsidies for critical social services, beefed up funding requirements and tightened up monitoring and evaluation practices, creating a domino effect of non-profits cutting back on most of their programming, or shutting down completely.

Even outside the non-profit industrial complex, grassroots groups are feeling the pinch of the financial crisis. In a recent online fundraising workshop I hosted, an attendee complained about being inundated with messages from “too many smaller, community groups all asking for support for the same issue.”

The harsh reality is that under the current economic conditions, many not-for-profit organizations have just two choices: adapt or die.

After years of dependency on government aid and foundation grants, non-profits are being forced to operate more like businesses (e.g. diversify their revenue streams, reduce overhead while increasing output etc) just to keep their heads above water.

Ironically, non-profit professionals may have to adopt a few strategies from the same “capitalists” in the corporate sector they once characterized as greedy and selfish for their unwavering focus on profitability and expansion. Yet, if this means, sustainability and wider reach for organizations striving for long-term social impact, could this shift towards running more like a business be such a bad thing?

Due to the funding crisis, complete dependency on charity, government, and in the case of Africa, foreign aid, is no longer an option. And, quite frankly, the non-profit industry could do with a good dose of the kind of survivalist creativity that’s prevalent in the corporate sector, such as collaborating with other players to pool resources, using strategic partnerships with similar organizations to strengthen service offerings, or even merging to widen their reach (or prevent closing up shop completely).

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that activists and non-profits should only ever consider collaboration as simply a tactic to navigate financial crises; organizations, especially the ones working with communities that are particularly marginalized, constantly under-resourced, and over-looked for more traditional forms of support, should already be working together, not just to save money, but for the sake of furthering their collective missions.

We have a moral obligation as people who are working towards social justice, to always choose the path that maximizes our social impact and/or increases our sustainability, regardless of what the economy is doing.

So, again, why aren’t more non-profits collaborating? What have we got to lose by working together? Why isn’t collaboration not happening as frequently as we suggest it should, especially when we have so much to gain? I hope to explore some of these questions in part two of this series.

Got an opinion on that? Why do you think we have so many activists, non-profits, and social impact initiatives doing similar work, yet not working together? Ego? Time and resources? Lack of awareness? Are you an individual activist doing social justice work? What has kept you (or turned you off) from collaborating in the past? What do you see as the “cons” for collaborating (as there are certainly a few). Note: This is a no judgment zone. Please share freely, as the conversation around collaboration is important for us to have if we are to move forward.

  • SheRoxLox

    I agree wholeheartedly with your point here sis. It is something I have heard over and over again from private donors to public ones, folks of wealth and in smaller community spaces…”why aren’t women’s rights groups collaborating more?” The reality is that the women’s movement continues to be under-resourced. If for instance you compare the size of the budgets of the largest women’s rights organizations/funds in the world to more mainstream development organisations you will see that it is shamefully incomparable. Compared to other social movements and sectors,
    women’s organizations have very very small budgets. But above and beyond the numbers – I think we need to come to terms with the fact that collaboration is not and should not just be about resources alone and “getting more money” really , we should be collaborating because that is what movement building is about – recognising the best of who we are and what we can bring and working together to create something bigger….

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