The NPO mess

The NPO mess

Working for the Jewish community isn’t what it’s cracked up to be — not anymore.
The rash of cutbacks and all-out shutdowns of Jewish nonprofit organizations have led many people, who for years labored with pride for their community, to wonder if the next round of layoffs will claim their jobs too.
And there will be more layoffs. Count on it.
Pittsburgh has been especially hard hit by the contraction of Jewish nonprofit organizations. The local office of Bnai Zion is gone; the Israel Bonds office has been reduced to a skeletal staff; Hadassah laid off its entire staff, though it expects to reorganize as a locally run entity, much like the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Jewish Committee did.
Nationally, the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE) will shut down by the end of the month; several Jewish charities and schools are scrambling for cash in the wake of the Bernie Madoff scandal, and as The Chronicle reports this week, the Union for Reform Judaism is planning a 20 percent budget cut, while an official of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism warned that “noticeable” cuts in their budget are in the offing as well.
And those are just the NPOs we’re aware of. Likely there are more.
Much as we would like to blame all this on Madoff, the problems with NPOs — Jewish or secular — run much deeper than that.
Part of the problem may be that some NPOs — perhaps many — have lost sight of their core mission. When interviewed for this week’s page one story, Kevin Kearns, a University of Pittsburgh professor and noted authority on NPO management, related the story of a Jewish Community Center in another city — he didn’t say which one — that over the years had taken on new services and obligations. Though those services have users, what Kearns called their own “constituency,” they were far removed from the core mission of that JCC, which its board was forced to admit when it reviewed its operation.
Result? Yep, you guessed it — more cuts.
We’re not here to offer a magic pill for an already difficult situation. There are none, but there are things that we should remember:
While virtually all NPOs are hurting for money — there is a recession going on — that doesn’t mean the circumstances behind their crises are all the same. Some NPOs may not have developed alternative sources of revenue over the years. Others may be working with inefficient management structures. Still others grew too fast once upon a time and must now contract to reflect the new demographics of American Jewry.
And maybe, just maybe, the missions of some NPOs are simply no longer necessary. That’s a possibility, too.
Now for the good news: Rumors of the death of the NPO are highly exaggerated.
As Peggy Outon, executive director of the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University, told us, the 10-county region in western Pennsylvania alone has nearly 300,000 people employed in the nonprofit sector. Their organizations pump almost $17 billion per year back into the regional economy.
“The nonprofit community is an economic force,” Outon said.
They also know how to live off the land.
“NPOs have been running lean and mean — I’ve been doing this business for 30 years,” Outon said.
Bottom line: The sector isn’t going anywhere, not as long as there are people in any given community who want to make a difference in people’s lives.
But first they need to look long and hard at their operations, make some tough changes, and reorganize for the future. That means expect more pain before things get better. But they will get better.