Monday, July 07, 2008

Charitable struggles

At Athens World, Nicki offered her take on this Athens Banner-Herald article regarding the concerns of some area non-profits and OneAthens. In it, she proceeds pretty early on to speculate - or at least feed speculation - that I'm the unnamed non-profit representative offering criticism of OneAthens.

Well, for starters, I'm not. I've offered criticism and commentary on this issue for quite some time now at this blog - one which features a picture of me along the righthand side of this web site - so I don't need to be unnamed for a story of this persuasion. I've tried to be engaged in this process, convey the legitimate concerns of the non-profit community and be open and responsive to the counterarguments and explanations that I hear. And, for the most part, I've been very pleased with those counterarguments and explanations because they address my concerns.

I do have some disagreements with some of Nicki's arguments that I would like to take a few moments to address ...

The reason OneAthens exists is because we have a holistic problem and there is no existing charity that addresses our problems holistically. That's where the focus should be, and it's factually verifiable.

How, though? 'Holistic' means an approach that is concerned with wholes rather than analysis or separation into parts, and we have approachs like that in place. The problem isn't that these approachs are lacking, but that they are small in scale and lack the adequate resources to expand their reach. That's a point I can concede, but to say that the non-profit community lacks a holistic approach is insulting to the non-profits that engage in this on a daily basis.

if OneAthens hurts anyone's fundraising, it will be because OneAthens is better qualified (because it's collaborative, and can marshall multiple nonprofits to address specific problems in a natural facilitation role) to receive funds.

This is flawed in two regards. First, it assumes that OneAthens will be 'better qualified' than existing approaches to channeling money, though there is no evidence to suggest that it will be. I can concede that it may eventually be that, but it could also emerge as another clumsy, bureaucratic body that restricts the giving ability of some, identifies pet projects to support and drowns out well-meaning non-profits with smaller missions (or completely different missions). This argument, however, is something we won't know for some time until we can analyze giving patterns, fundraising successes/shortcomings and budgets after OneAthens is really up and running.

Secondly, if OneAthens is indeed solicitating funds from smaller, local donors than this will have an impact on the fundraising ability of other non-profits. Why? Becuase typically most smaller, local donors either focus their funds on one or two charities they have a personal interest in (church, a non-profit they volunteer with, an organization that has a mission which corresponds with a personal issue, etc.) or they are good-hearted individuals who like to toss some donations around to a variety of organizations.

People only have a finite amount of income to contribute, and if they develop a connection to OneAthens, then this will mean another non-profit will not receive funding (or at least receive a smaller gift). And this would be true of any other organization that opened its doors and began culling through our charitable community for folks who like to support worthy causes.

If a percentage of the population starts giving less money to some non-profits and passing it on to OneAthens (or some other new non-profit), that will cause a financial crunch to those affected non-profits ... and it won't be because the market magically identified these affected ones as 'bad' non-profits.

If OneAthens honestly aims to not solicit funds from donors in the local community and focus on identifying large grants, raising money from out-of-the-area large donors, etc., then this concern of mine will be significantly abated. And, to be fair, this is the message that is being conveyed by those affiliated with OneAthens, many of whom I value as colleagues and friends, so I have grown quite optimistic this won't emerge as a problem.

The larger concern with OneAthens, as I see it, has less to do with fundraising, and more to with some of its proposals. Speaking bluntly, it's attempting to reinvent the wheel in many cases. I alluded to this earlier, but there are plenty of successful programs already in place that have been implemented by a variety of non-profit organizations, but rather than identify those organizations and give them the necessary tools, resources and support to dramatically expand their operations and serve larger populations, OneAthens, in some cases, has proposed completely new progams that offer parallel services.

Consider the fact that OneAthens will 'will advise start-ups on raising money and building boards of directors' and then contrast that with Community Connection which, in large part, offers similar start-up support for non-profits throughout Northeast Georgia. OneAthens has a wonderful and noble goal of increasing employment opportunity and job skills marketing and training, but JobTrec from the Athens Area Homeless Shelter does that as well.

We hear all this talk about how OneAthens will just force ineffective non-profits to shutter there doors and how the non-profits have dropped the ball in the fight against poverty, but I just don't see it all. What I see are non-profits that perform very well, but struggle with raising money and meeting the challenges. Their program structures are sound ones, but they just don't have the existing resources to meet the challenges out there.

Listen, as I've said many times before, I'm very proud of OneAthens, and I'm very optimistic about the good work it can do in our community. My concern all along, as well as many in the non-profit community, is that it either didn't solicit or dismissed the input coming from those on the ground in the non-profit community with regard to fundraising concerns, program duplication, unnecessary competition, etc. Again, I am hopeful that OneAthens will emerge as a great player in the fight against poverty in our community - one that supports the work done by our frontline players - but I want to see that the engagement being put forward by Delene Porter continues and non-profits aren't told they're merely overreacting or offering up invalid concerns.


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