Acting Locally Requires Care and Feeding

Fall is fundraising season and fatigue can quickly set in. Elections and political fundraising calls are now thankfully in the rearview mirror. Yet, we find that our in-boxes and mail boxes are still overflowing with funding requests. The big distinction is that these are largely coming from non-profit organizations making their end-of-year giving pleas.

It’s always telling to me the size and support of an organization by how many requests they make, how they are made (i.e. contract with a third party to make phone calls or send fat envelopes filled with greeting cards, notepads, etc.), and whether or not matching donors are involved. In most cases these are tactics that larger, national or state non-profit organizations use and they can be very effective. The slim envelope with a single piece of paper, a hand written note, or a personal call or house party are tactics used more frequently by small, local non-profits who tend to run on shoe-string budgets, and with limited staff who are more focused on the doing than on the fundraising. In Maryland, for example, roughly two-thirds of area non-profits have an annual operating budget of less than $25,000. Regardless of their size, most non-profit organizations rely on giving to survive.

Over the past six years, we’ve heard a lot about how the recession impacted individuals, the private sector and public agencies. Philanthropic organizations, who provide the backbone of non-profit funding were also hit producing rippling and sometimes devastating impacts on non-profit organizations. "Some organizations lost 30 percent of their revenues, some lost as much as 50 percent of their revenues," said Glen O'Gilvie, chief executive of the Center for Nonprofit Advancement, an agency that assists nonprofits in the Washington, D.C., area. Research commissioned by the John Hopkins University found that medium sized organizations (those with budgets between $500,000 and $3 million) have been the hardest hit, but are starting to recover. At the same time, many non-profit organizations have been asked to do more with less funding.  A key to their recovery has been to diversify revenue sources, with many more organizations turning to individual donors and corporate donors. Hence the growing number of year-end fundraising requests.

Local non-profit organizations are leading community engagement including outreach to new immigrants in Eden Prairie, MN living and working along the proposed Greenline LRT extension. (Photo credit: Twin Cities LISC)

Local non-profit organizations are leading community engagement including outreach to new immigrants in Eden Prairie, MN living and working along the proposed Greenline LRT extension. (Photo credit: Twin Cities LISC)

Over the past year, MZ Strategies has been working with a group of national funders and the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities to assess how locally-driven and market-oriented reform efforts are “transforming transportation.” It’s been an impressive journey where I’ve gotten to meet with hundreds of advocates from across the country who are working to make their neighborhoods, cities, and regions better places for people to live, regardless of their race, income, age or ability. I’ve been amazed by the ingenuity and dedication of these local warriors, and shocked in many cases by the limited resources they have available.

While it’s never easy for non-profits to raise sufficient funds, those organizations working on transportation or planning issues have an especially tough time. Let’s be honest, when asked to choose between an environmental cause like saving the polar bears, or a social cause like feeding the homeless, most people go with their heart. Streetcars, bike lanes, and mixed-use communities are also lovable, but to a much more limited subset of the population.

Local transportation advocacy is a long-term commitment. Financially, that can be a challenge to sustain. Community organizing is a tough but vital job. Equally important is the ability to build technical capacity so they can be effective and informed. Producing reports, hosting forums, conducting research, publishing blogs and other social media strategies and conducting charrettes are among the techniques successful local non-profits depend upon to influence decision makers.

The results of these local actions can result in multi-million dollar transportation projects, transit-oriented developments, or planning efforts. I find it ironic and disheartening when my colleagues working for developers, planning and engineering firms, or other consulting companies who reap the benefits from local advocacy efforts do not step forward to support the non-profits who are doing this critical and heavy lifting community work. So, let me end by first thanking those individuals and corporations who are stepping forward as good partners to non-profits working in their regions or nationally. And let me make a plea for others to join in the care and feeding of those organizations that you feel are doing important and effective work in your community. The industry, and our communities, are the better for having an effective and rich non-profit advocacy community working on planning and policy issues!

One local shout-out: In the Washington DC region, we are fortunate to have a number of excellent local advocacy groups. One of my favorite regional organizations is the Coalition for Smarter Growth who work with partners in Virginia, Maryland, Washington DC and suburban jurisdictions across the region  to address where and how our region will grow, supporting new transit and walkable, inclusive communities. They host neighborhood tours to see projects first-hand and understand how policies and plans come together and where challenges lie. They engage with local and state politicians to help them understand how their decisions influence the region’s transportation, economic and environmental systems. They continue to try and tackle housing affordability which is becoming a regional crisis for working families and the millennials who are flocking to hip places like H Street, Clarendon, and Shaw. They do all of this with 6 staff and a budget slightly around $600,000, with philanthropy providing about half of their revenues.  Greater support helps provide greater engagement.