The historical significance of the nonprofit sector in the United States was best described by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1840, when he noted that Americans form associations to promote exemplary social programs and to provide funding to respond to social needs. What Tocqueville observed as the American spirit was derived from our earliest colonial experience, when communities were founded before government was in place to care for public needs, necessarily initiating the practice of private caring for community outside of government and profoundly shaping American society and its institutional framework. Accordingly, the nonprofit sector has been the embodiment of our values and has continued to thrive since the founding of the republic.
With that perspective, what does our current iteration of economic and political malaise portend for the nonprofit community? Several things.
By whatever measure used to evaluate the financial and political upheaval we are currently experiencing, we have “been there, done that” many times over in the past 400 years of the American experience. Nevertheless, philanthropy has continued to strengthen and nonprofits have grown.
This does not mean that nonprofits are exempt from organizational hardship. Indeed, nonprofits must be as flexible and adaptable as any business in order to weather this or any other financial storm. We should never waste an economic downturn, and a challenging economic environment at least provides an opportunity for nonprofits to reflect on their primary mission, cull away the nonessential and focus on key objectives.
There is no doubt that for some organizations this process will be extremely painful. Despite good, even heroic efforts, we will lose some nonprofits that have played an important role in our community. Others will need to make the difficult decision to shelve or abandon initiatives that would bring real value to the region. However, those weathering the current financial turbulence should emerge more resilient and with an even stronger vision forged through adversity. In addition, upheavals always reveal new challenges, and in response our existing nonprofits will grow and new organizations will be formed to address emerging needs.
Will a negative economic and political climate dampen philanthropic support for nonprofits? There will undoubtedly be a chilling effect, but that should not be the case. No great mental leap is required to understand that if nonprofits need community support in good economic times, it is needed even more in challenging economic times. In fact, as the financial capacity of government continues to shrink, nonprofits are called upon to play an ever greater role to address a wide array of community needs. Fortunately, our community has demonstrated time and again that it understands the importance of the nonprofit sector and appreciates the value nonprofits provide for the investments made by donors.
If Tocqueville visited our community today, he would undoubtedly observe that our own experience in the formation and philanthropic support of nonprofits simply reflects the growth of the American experience, rooted in the foundation of the republic. While our nonprofits capitalize community benefit in good times, they embrace and address the needs of challenging times. They mirror the best of who we are and the values we hold. That is why I believe that for this community there could be no brighter future as that envisioned and supported through the work of our nonprofits.
Elson Strahan is the president and CEO of the Fort Vancouver National Trust. He can be reached at 360.992.1835.