The Crisis That Was Not Averted

Though our government is running again and will not default, there is still a crisis in progress. During the 16 days of government shutdown, demand went up for emergency assistance from furloughed federal employees, outside vendors who lost wages because of the shutdown and people who relied on federally-funded programs to get by.

That demand was met by small, community-based non-profits -- many of which are nearly as vulnerable as the people they serve. They do not have the resources to make up for two-plus weeks of operating well above capacity.

Some have already closed as a result of the government shutdown, like Concerted Services, which will no longer provide emergency energy assistance to needy Georgians. Others struggled to provide more help, especially challenging for those organizations that had been receiving some federal funding before the shutdown.

I offer no solutions to averting another government shutdown. But I can tell you one thing we can all do to make America a more secure and prosperous nation: We can write a check -- to the local food bank, diaper bank, heating assistance fund or community health center. We can make sure that these essential services are there when we need them.

Keep in mind that the sequester cuts will continue and affect many federal human service programs, such as Head Start and Women Infants and Children (WIC). Private not-for-profits will continue to be asked to step in and provide emergency assistance. The deal that averted the default does not change that.

So we need to protect non-profits, which have long been in danger. According to the Urban Institute: “An IRS study of ‘nonfilers’ conducted in the 1990s found that 21 percent of the nonprofit organizations in the IRS Business Master File that had not filed a Form 990 (the standard tax form required of non-profits) could no longer be located, indicating that they had probably ceased operations. Over the five-year period from 2000 to 2005, 16 percent of organizations that filed IRS Form 990s in 2000 failed to file in 2005. This means that they either dropped below the $25,000 filing threshold or went out of business.”

In 2009, 40 percent of non-profits in the United States were in deficit. While the occasional story of a non-profit spending lavishly makes the news, I can assure you that most stay afloat with smaller staffs than they truly need. One university warned students that they could expect to make 25 percent less working for a non-profit than they would in a comparable job in industry. I say this to point out that non-profits are already lean. Making further cuts to keep the doors open simply isn’t a viable option for most.

Foundations and other large funders often urge small non-profits to work toward sustainability -- in other words, to develop a plan for ongoing financial security. This is easier said than done. There is no profit to be made delivering sandwiches to men living under a bridge or giving a low-income family a box of hygiene supplies so that everyone stays clean and healthy. Sustainability often amounts to developing a larger pool of donors and increasing their commitment to the organization so that they give larger gifts.

Sustainability relies on ordinary people doing what we know to be right -- supporting the organizations that support the neediest among us.