The future of LGBT nonprofits

  • by Roger Doughty
  • Wednesday April 13, 2011
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LGBT nonprofit organizations have rarely had it easy. Most tend to live near the proverbial edge, working for goals as large as their budgets tend to be small – goals like winning equality, calling out injustice, helping the sick and vulnerable, and enriching our community.

It's normal to see nonprofits come and go, whether in the LGBT community or any other. Yet something different seems to be going on now. We're seeing even well known LGBT nonprofits go under or teeter precariously. New Leaf: Services for Our Community, Lyon-Martin Health Services, Academy of Friends, and San Francisco Pride are just the most-publicized; others are struggling, too. Some will almost certainly cease to exist as we've known them.  

Of course, each is its own story, woven from some blend of leadership, planning, skill, and luck – and all amid a merciless recession. But a bigger story is playing out here, too, and that's the story of what will happen to the institutional infrastructure that LGBT people have built over so many years with such vision, pride, and sacrifice.

And that raises hard questions about what our community can – or even should – do about what's going on. How important is it to have strong and sustainable organizations?

The lay of the land

The news isn't all bad. There are solid, stable, and effective LGBT organizations both in the Bay Area and around the country. A recent study of 39 national LGBT advocacy groups by the Denver-based Movement Advancement Project found them largely weathering the financial storm of the past three years. Given how turbulent the economy has been, and the unprecedented drop in public and private funding, it's remarkable to see these organizations proving so resilient.

But a lot of the news is bleaker. A 2010 Horizons Foundation survey revealed that 96 percent of Bay Area LGBT nonprofits reported negative impacts from the recession, with nearly half reporting layoffs, fully 43 percent reporting reduced staff hours, and 40 percent cutting salaries for some or all staff. Even the generally upbeat MAP study reports that the 39 organizations surveyed, on average, saw revenue drop 20 percent from 2008 to 2009. Worse, the organizations budgeted for an average additional 18 percent decline from 2009 to 2010.

That's more than 35 percent over just two years. Many of us would find it all but impossible to adjust to losing 35 percent of our household budgets – and it's not much different with organizations. Drops in revenue have to be balanced by cuts in expenses, and that almost always translates into reduced programs, worse access, people in need going without, and diminished advocacy. In other words, even as these groups seem to be hanging tough, it's coming at a stiff price to those whom the nonprofits serve.

Unfortunately, the situation is likely to head further downhill. Government funding is close to free-fall, with countless programs set to decline or disappear entirely. We're talking health care, drug treatment, roofs over heads, HIV prevention, cancer screenings, vital programs for youth and elders, and thousands more. We're talking cuts with severe consequences.

Foundations can't cover that gap. They're tiny relative to government, and with endowments still well below their pre-recession peaks, it'll be a long time before their grantmaking returns to earlier levels – if they ever do.

Questions beyond money alone

The challenges facing LGBT nonprofits go beyond the economic. For example, the leadership and capability of some boards of directors have been called into question. Skills of a staff matter – obviously – but often it's the strength of a board that ultimately determines whether an organization flourishes or fails.

Hundreds of caring, committed volunteers serve on LGBT nonprofit boards, often receiving little training or support. Almost all of them work hard, are there for the right reasons, and do their best – for which we should all be grateful. But sometimes that "best" still falls short of what the role and situation demand.

Then there's perhaps the biggest question of all, the elephant in the room: to what extent are the nonprofit organizations we've built still relevant? Or have times just moved on, and the need for LGBT nonprofits is simply disappearing?

There's certainly no rule that says every nonprofit organization – LGBT or otherwise – has to exist forever, or that we need an LGBT-specific nonprofit for every issue. Organizations can outlive their usefulness, community needs and priorities may shift, or sometimes, just like in a poorly run business, a nonprofit can be doomed by internal weaknesses. And in some areas, mainstream nonprofits may be both qualified and well-positioned to serve our community – perhaps even better than an LGBT nonprofit.

So, to put the question a bit indelicately, why should our community care if LGBT organizations are struggling? Or if they fail?

So why should we care?

The way I see it, we've all got a stake in having strong institutions that are of, by, and for our community. For starters, vibrant institutions are integral to our movement's – and our community's – strength and success. It's hard to imagine the Jewish community, or the Chinese or African-American communities, the evangelical community – to take just a few rough examples – without their respective institutions. At the end of the day, every strong community has strong institutions, both as proud symbols and as advocates for that community's interests and needs. Our community is no exception.

But this is about much more than symbols. The capacity of our organizations largely determines how well the LGBT community can both act quickly and reach long-term goals. Nonprofits' capacity can be decisive in how swiftly – and effectively – we can respond to crises or opportunities, be they (God forbid) another epidemic, a new political attack, or a sudden opening of which to take advantage.

At the same time, the strength of nonprofits also determines our ability to make the kind of intensive, long-term commitments that underlie victories like the recent repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" or the landmark Department of Justice decision on the Defense of Marriage Act. Those moments of triumph don't just suddenly appear. They're the headlines that come only after years of organizing, strategizing, lobbying, and litigating.

Lastly, and more personally, the great majority of us benefit from the work of LGBT nonprofits at some point in our lives. Maybe it was a coming-out group, or a medical test, counseling or a support group, or a play or a film we saw. Taking it half a step further, if we stop for about two seconds, I'd bet we can all think of people we know and love who, at one time or another, found help, support, or an advocate because of our nonprofit organizations. (And remember that a lot of people – even our friends – don't talk about services they seek out.)

The challenge before us

The challenge before us is historic, both because it's unprecedented and because how we respond today will shape what kind of community we have tomorrow. It will shape what kind of community future LGBT generations inherit from us.

These are big questions, and by no means do I have the hubris to pretend to know all the answers. But in the second part of this column next week, I'll offer five suggestions to help move us in that direction.

Roger Doughty is the executive director of the Horizons Foundation. Next week, he will look at the future of LGBT nonprofits.