Blog: Michael Tyson

With nearly 50,000 nonprofits in Michigan and charitable giving falling 11% in 2009, competition for funding is prickly out there. Michael Tyson, president and CEO of Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW), suggests these organizations should unify and share resources in order to meet their double bottom lines of money and mission.

Post 1: Snapshot of Today's Nonprofit

In creating a snapshot of today's nonprofit, it first helps to paint a picture of Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW) from my perspective as President/CEO.   NEW itself is a nonprofit with humble beginnings in 1993 as a home to other nonprofits.  That "home," the NEW Center in Ann Arbor, was built on a site that was originally an unsightly junkyard!  

NEW's current programs evolved as a result of getting to know the nonprofit community, its needs, and eventually developing the programs we offer?and have offered over the years – by responding to those needs.  From 2001, when NEW helped over 100 nonprofits, until 2010 when NEW helped over 560 nonprofits, the number of nonprofits served by NEW has grown exponentially.  These nonprofits function in a wide variety of arenas including human services, education, religion, the environment, and the arts and culture, and impact tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of people.  If you're reading this blog and live in Southeastern Michigan, chances are good you have been impacted by the work that NEW has done and may not even be aware of it!

In recent years, it has been no secret that the economy in Metro Detroit has been hard hit, to put it mildly.  The nonprofit community as a whole has been forced into a drastic shift because of this downturn.  According to the Associated Press, charitable giving from the American public decreased 11% in 2009, the largest decrease in 20 years.  Many nonprofits have had to close their doors as a result.  

However, the news is not all doom and gloom.  Nonprofits that have a focus on basic human needs (food, clothing, shelter) have seen a surge in requests for their services, as well as increases in charitable giving.   People have been stepping in to "fill the gap". Mission-focused groups and those with strong, engaged boards are doing well in this environment.   Some start-ups are also hanging in there because they have been used to struggling and had little financial support to begin with.  Faith-based groups that are continuing to be supported by places of worship are holding their own in this economy as well.

Nonprofits that are "making it" in Metro Detroit are those who have history and experience – those who have survived hard times before.  They have leaders and boards who are trained to make tough decisions on how to best allocate increasingly limited resources.  And they also have dedicated fundraisers – people who are willing to go out and appeal to funders for help.  Without these, nonprofits faced with economic hard times will flounder at best, and often will fail.

Economic hardship has also had a positive effect on many Metro Detroit nonprofits in that it has necessitated collaborative efforts between nonprofits where none had existed before.  Organizations with common missions are reaching out to each other to share resources such as space, information, and in some cases dollars.  The difficulty in continuing collaboration lies in lack of time and infrastructure, which are often problems nonprofits face to begin with.

Looking at the history of the nonprofit community, one can see the story of Metro Detroit being told in both good times and bad.  When times are good, nonprofits supporting arts and culture often thrive.  When times are not good, those meeting basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter are enhanced.  NEW's Yodit Mesfin Johnson put it best when she said "When it's all said and done, they (nonprofits) unified around their commitment to the community."

The perspective at NEW is similar to other nonprofits in that we, too, have been impacted by the economy.  Clearly we are having to live by our own mission of "doing more with less".  However, a key difference that may be observed about NEW is that we rely on earned revenue from our programs and products much more than traditional nonprofits do.  NEW has also focused on what we do best rather than trying to be "everything to everyone," despite the diversity of nonprofits we serve.  Our confidence and success, even in the face of adversity, lies in the fact that we practice what we preach, and our goal is to teach other nonprofits what we know, ultimately enhancing communities in and throughout all of Metro Detroit.  NEW is the nonprofit's nonprofit!

Tomorrow:  Defining the Successful Nonprofit