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Too (blank) to Fail?

February 09, 2009

(Bradford Smith is president of the Foundation Center. In his last post, he asked whether there are too many nonprofits -- or not enough.)

Excellence_award 2008 was the year of the bailout, in which the giants of finance and industry were lent a generous helping hand by their friends in the U.S. government, generally because they were considered "too big to fail." Leaving the irony aside that, in many cases, the result was to create bigger institutions whose future failure could pose even greater risk to the world financial system, it got me thinking about the nonprofit equivalent of "too big to fail."

The following would be my candidates for nonprofit organizations that are too big, too important, or too (blank) to fail. For the sake of clarity, there is no indication whatsoever that any of these organizations is headed off the edge of a cliff like Lehman Brothers or AIG; if anything it may be time for the private sector to learn a thing or two from these nonprofits about how to create mission critical organizations with long-term staying power. It's just that, if things got much, much worse, these would be my candidates for a bailout -- the world would be a much poorer place without them.

Fill in the blanks above, and give us your own list of the nonprofits that are too (blank) to fail.

-- Bradford Smith

(* full disclosure -– I began my career working for the YMCA.)

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Posted by Meghan  |   February 12, 2009 at 09:10 AM

I think the larger question for all of these organizations (and arguably the companies too)is: are we too(blank)to evolve? I work for one of the 1300 local United Ways (a tremendous organization, which I'd add to your list. Countless people and nonprofit agencies depend on UW and we are completely ingrained in the workplaces and communities of America.)

One of the concepts we are always discussing is how to evolve to reflect and meet the changing needs of our community and to reflect and meet the changing ways that donors & volunteers want to interact with nonprofits.

The challenge here is not whether big organizations can innovate. I think they can (and have). But rather can public perception shift so that agility and innovation are as expected of large organizations as they are of web-based start-ups.

Posted by Bilen Mesfin  |   February 12, 2009 at 06:28 PM

Thanks so much for the inclusion of women’s funds to this insightful and much-needed list. The current economic climate makes women's funds and their agenda of investing in women and women-led solutions even more vital.

Women's funds understand that investing in women sparks a powerful chain reaction. We know that when a woman is economically secure, that security spreads to families, and to communities, and to entire regions and nations, thus making our world more secure. In short, women make a difference – and they bring everyone along with them while they are doing it.

Posted by Brad  |   February 17, 2009 at 02:31 PM

Thanks Meghan for adding United Way to the list and for posing a critical question about the need and ability of large organizations to evolve. A book was recently recommended to me--"Unstoppable" by Chris Zook--about how such evolution plays out in business and it is interesting reading.

As for women's funds, it is one of the truths of development assistance that investing in women has a huge payoff. Women's funds help connect women (and men) with resources to the struggles of women in their own countries and regions. There was a second, and extremely powerful women's organization on the group--Self Employed Women’s Association--as well.

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