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Foundations and the State Budget Crisis

September 21, 2011

States across the nation have been staggered by falling home prices and the residual effects of the financial crisis. From Rhode Island to Michigan to California, declining tax revenues and rising healthcare costs have put the squeeze on state budgets, forcing tough choices on governors and state legislatures. To balance their budgets, states are being forced to cut social services, lay off public-sector employees, and rethink their role in providing a social safety net for the poor, the sick, and the elderly.

Nonprofit organizations that count on state government for some or most of their funding find themselves caught between the rock of declining revenue and the hard place of increased demand for their services. To determine the extent to which foundations see their nonprofit grantees being affected by state budget cuts, the Foundation Center conducted a March 2011 survey of its Grantmaker Leadership Panel. Of the seventy-five foundation leaders who completed the survey, the vast majority (95 percent) indicated that at least some of their grantees had been affected by cuts, while more than half (58 percent) said "all" or "most" of their grantees had. Among the areas that respondents identified as being most vulnerable to cuts were human services and education, followed by health, the arts, and environmental protection.


More surprising was the relatively pessimistic view of the economic recovery shared by foundation leaders, with four out of five respondents (81 percent) saying they expected the budget challenges facing many states to continue through 2013 or beyond.

Many foundations have stepped up to help. Indeed, almost half (47 percent) the foundation leaders responding to the survey said their foundations had awarded grants or provided other kinds of assistance in direct response to funding cuts at the state level, while one-third (33 percent) reported that fiscal problems at the state level had influenced how their 2011 grants budget was set and/or how funding was allocated.


One of the most vocal of the respondents to the survey was Doug Bauer, executive director of the New York City-based Clark Foundation. In a one-page addendum to the survey findings, Bauer underscored four key needs that emerged in the findings and offered the following thoughts:

1. More general operating support. In a time of seriously constrained resources, our grantees need as much flexibility as possible to manage their programs and finances. The dollars that help the most and go the farthest in this environment are general operating support funds.

2. More capacity building support. In the aftermath of reduced public support, nonprofits need to rethink, reassess, and restructure their business models. Underwriting capacity building, which tends to be relatively low-cost, can yield high returns. Having access to resources for capacity building can provide nonprofits with the ability to succeed in the "new normal."

3. More working capital. Reduced public support means nonprofit cash flow will be squeezed and operating margins thin. Banks are leery of extending bridge loans or lines of credit when government contracts become unreliable. Foundations need to increase the ability of community development finance institutions (CDFIs) to provide short-term financing to nonprofits. CDFIs, such as the Nonprofit Finance Fund, understand the operating models of nonprofits and have more patience around delayed government contracts or grants. But CDFIs need capital to do this. For their part, foundations can use program-related investments (PRIs) to provide the needed capital without affecting their grants budgets.

4. More advocacy. Sadly, the budget battles of 2011 are not the last ones we will see at the federal, state, and local levels. In some states, the coming years will bring even larger budget gaps. The sector must develop a stronger advocacy effort to ensure that critical initiatives and the most vulnerable do not suffer disproportionately. The rules and regulations on advocacy are clear; we know exactly what we can and cannot do. But our support for advocacy must become broader and deeper, both internally and financially. The staff time, research, dissemination, and related work needed to mount successful advocacy campaigns cost money.

"We are in the nascent stages of a profoundly new era for most of the nonprofit sector," Bauer added. "Old and/or current operational models will not likely work. Having foundations seriously address these four needs will help our grantees begin to cope with, and better understand, the new era. The big question, however, is will foundations step up?"

That is the question. What do you think about the needs identified by Bauer above? Would you add anything to his list? Is the nonprofit sector in the early stages of a "profoundly new era," or is this just a re-run of the 1980s? And what do nonprofit organizations themselves need to do to ensure that the "new normal" doesn't turn into a nightmare?

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