Answers About United Way and Nonprofits
January 28, The New York Times — Following is the first set of answers from Gordon J. Campbell, the president and chief executive of United Way of New York City. Mr. Campbell answered selected readers’ questions on how New York City nonprofits are coping with the recession and how New Yorkers can give back and provide assistance to those in need. We are no longer accepting questions for this feature.
What is your advice to young 20-somethings trying to get their start in public service? Would you recommend graduate study or law school? Should they go immediately into the work force, working their way up in the nonprofit or government sector? I suppose the broader question would be, how can a young person best contribute to our world without having had the kind of professional experience and skills that are usually necessary to have an impact on society? I am curious to know your thoughts.
— Posted by Will E.
I commend you for your interest in public service, whether in the nonprofit sector or with government. Both sectors are thirsty for the energy, creativity and innovative ideas that members of your generation can bring. Certainly, the Obama campaign demonstrated what can be accomplished when the passion and power of Generation X and Millennials are effectively harnessed.
With regard to advanced degrees, I think it is extremely valuable to have real life experience before entering graduate school. For six years I taught at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School for Public Service, where it was clear that students who had previously worked in the nonprofit or public sectors were often better grounded and could more quickly understand the marriage of theory and practice. The routes to gaining this experience are myriad, and include not only paid employment but also service as a volunteer. In fact, many volunteer roles, such as managing a soup kitchen, serving as a financial coach to low-income families or organizing a fund-raiser, provide excellent opportunities to learn through hands-on experience.
I have a startup nonprofit that runs a program called the BioBus, a mobile biology classroom that gives K-12 students hands-on experience using microscopes and developing their interest in science. I would like your advice on a fund-raising issue that has been exacerbated by the recent economic crisis. I sometimes feel guilty asking individuals for donations because most of my financing is already coming from government agencies. But of course, I would like to supplement my organization’s budget with private donations. Do you have any philosophical tips that could assuage my guilt and perhaps also make me a better fund-raiser?
— Posted by Ben Dubin-Thaler, Ph.D.
Your situation is not unique, especially for New York City nonprofits, which provide the lion’s share of social services under contract by government. The challenge from a nonprofit management perspective is that government dollars typically are not flexible — they pay for specific services and rarely fully cover an organization’s basic administrative expenses. Private donations are critical to nonprofits, not only to help “keep the lights on,” but also because they give nonprofit managers the flexibility to innovate and enhance the services they offer.
If you believe in the mission of your organization, you should never feel guilty about asking individuals for donations. In fact, if you are not asking them for a contribution, you can rest assured that others are. Remember that you are telling them the story of your organization with enthusiasm and commitment. You are enlisting them in your mission, and asking them for their support is a natural part of that process. Of course, you should offer them opportunities to volunteer and engage with your organization in other ways, as well.
People with a record of philanthropy expect to be asked. If you and your board have confidence in your organization and are able to tell people very concretely about your goals and the results you have achieved to date, asking for donations should be that much easier.
Is there somewhere I can go to gain access to a list of charities and volunteer events in the city?
— Posted by Peter Kelly
In light of the many challenges facing our nation and our city, President Obama, Gov. David A. Paterson and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have all called for a new era of public service and volunteerism. There is no doubt that for many nonprofits, volunteers are essential to their ability to deliver on their mission, especially during these lean economic times.
Since 2005, United Way of New York City has partnered with the Mayor’s Volunteer Center on a joint Web site — VolunteerNYC.org — which is specifically tailored for New Yorkers looking to volunteer their time and talents. The site features a database of more than a thousand one-time and ongoing volunteer opportunities at hundreds of local charities, and you can search by criteria like ZIP code, areas of interest, and the skills you are able to offer. Whether you are looking to tutor a child, design a Web site for a small nonprofit, or help clean up a city park, it is all there. You can also find opportunities for children, teenagers and families. It is never too early to instill the habit of giving back to the community.
The recent changes in both the political and economic landscape of the country are reshaping the face of philanthropy as we know it. What advice do you have for nonprofit groups in the city concerning how they can harness the energy of an empowered younger generation of New Yorkers that want to be a part of a city that continues to evolve the term “giving back”? In other words, when budgets are being cut, what are some innovative ways a nonprofit can mobilize volunteers to help realize their organization’s mission?
— Posted by C. Donovan
That is a great question. With a lot of nonprofits struggling during the economic downturn, they must still plan for the future and seize on current opportunities. Planning for the future, of course, should definitely involve strategies for “harnessing the energy” of youth, as you mention.
First, it is important to note that the younger generation is very issue-driven, and nonprofits are challenged to engage them and to be able to show a measurable impact of their work. There is a perception that existing nonprofits are stodgy and bureaucratic, so the onus is on us to make young people know that their input and their hands-on participation is not only welcome, but also needed.
In exploring the term “giving back” with regard to the changing political landscape, my mind first goes to President Obama’s call to service, as I have noted previously. It is interesting to see the same technology employed so successfully by his presidential campaign to raise money and secure votes now being used to spread his message about the importance of serving one’s community.
Just as we’ve seen Web 2.0 respond to the younger generation’s need to personalize their experience with the Internet (YouTube, MySpace, etc.), the modern United Way offers volunteer opportunities that draw on individual experience — be it educational, professional, or personal — in new ways. For instance, we have a program called MoneyUP that trains volunteers to serve as tax preparers and financial counselors to low-income families in need. It provides a great way for volunteers to “give back” by using their own professional experience.
The recession will swiftly affect badly-run nonprofits, of which there are many! Are there any pro-bono consulting groups or resources for nonprofits that need management or budget help? Does the United Way in New York do any leadership development or training for nonprofit staff?
— Posted by Laura
The economic downturn poses a serious challenge to all human services nonprofits that are facing increased demand for their services at the same time that their revenue is down as government revenues decline, foundation endowments shrink, and individual and corporate donors cut expenses. Sound management and budgeting are especially crucial, so I am glad that you asked about resources that are available to assist nonprofits navigate the economic storm.
There are a number of pro bono resources for nonprofits in the New York City area that I can recommend:
Two organizations that harness the knowledge and expertise of retirees who volunteer their services are National Executive Corps and Gray Matters.
Other groups provide capacity-building “service grants” delivered pro bono. Taproot Foundation is a leader in this area.
Nonprofits can also get pro bono business and transactional legal services through Lawyers Alliance for New York.
The Foundation Center can provide answers on a range of fund-raising issues, including via e-mail, live online chat or in person.
Other useful resources include: Support Center for Nonprofit Management, which offers a range of affordable workshops, Governance Matters, which provides valuable support for nonprofit boards, including how to manage economic fluctuations, Council of Community Services of New York State, and Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York.
United Way of New York City established its Nonprofit Leadership Development Institute in 2004 to help build a diverse group of young professionals with the skills, credentials and connections necessary to lead nonprofit organizations effectively. Over the past four years, the leadership development institute has strengthened emerging leaders at more than 800 nonprofits in the five boroughs. Our N.L.D.I. junior fellows, senior fellows and executive fellows programs for this year are already filled; however, our Linkages Board Training and Placement program, also part of the leadership development institute, continues to accept applications both from prospective board members and nonprofits looking to strengthen their boards.
In addition, we are currently working on a Human Services Resiliency Initiative aimed at improving local nonprofits’ organizational stability and service delivery productivity during this time of economic downturn. Through the initiative, we will partner with others to offer staff development workshops, technical assistance, and funding to support individual nonprofits and multiorganization collaborations.