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When is it a good time to invest in a young nonprofit?

Lansie Sylvia. August 3, 2017 Category: ColumnFeaturedFundingLong

How to Give” is a monthly column by local philanthropy wizard Lansie Sylvia. In it, Lansie answers readers’ questions about millennials, philanthropy and engaging the next generation of givers. To ask her a question, tweet @FancyLansie.


I met this really amazing, super inspiring painter who has her own small nonprofit. I think she has really fresh ideas on how to help kids in the city learn life skills through art. But when I brought up the nonprofit with a (more knowledgeable) friend he scoffed and said that this organization wasn’t likely to “last more than five years.” Does that mean I shouldn’t give to it? If they’re doing good work now, why does it matter what they do in the future?

Sustainability in the nonprofit sector is a deeper existential question than it appears on the surface.

Nonprofits are so often defined by their willingness to provide goods and services that some people feel “should be” taken care of by the government but aren’t, or remedying the ills of capitalism that “should be” taken into account by the corporations, but aren’t. Think of all your social service agencies, environmental protection groups and other advocacy-oriented organizations.

So for every problem that exists, it can seem like it “should be” someone else’s job or responsibility to fix it. Arts and enrichment activities for kids run into this kind of thinking and rhetoric all. the. time.

Many people feel like art, music, movement, and other forms of creative expression are critical to childhood development, and therefore should be provided by the state via the public school system. Others see creative activities as “nice to have” but not essential. And then there are some who think it’s all a load of floofy bullcrap altogether. Responding to all of these views are a myriad of arts and culture nonprofits serving youth across our city and state.

Should we focus on fixing problems forever or should we just be doing what we can at the moment?

The reason I bring this up is that it gets to the heart of your challenge — should we focus on fixing problems forever (the long term) or should we just be doing what we can at the moment because the future is too uncertain (the short term)?

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And whose job is it to fix these problems in the long term? Are they the same people who should be providing “Band-aids” in the short-term? Or is there room, and validity, for all of it?

If you’re the type of philanthropist who wants to focus on the long term, then you should care about a nonprofit’s sustainability, succession plan, and whether it’s going to last more than five years. Big, wicked problems often demand complex solutions relying on a combination of programming, advocacy, trial and iteration, political change and other variables. That ish doesn’t change overnight.

And very often, successful nonprofits are run by charismatic leaders who are able to motivate involvement — and significant donations — from a variety of sources for the time that they are in command. Your painter friend sounds very charismatic indeed. The challenge is to plan for what happens after that leader moves on. In other words: Can the nonprofit still sustain itself programmatically and financially?

What happens if you painter friend takes a residency in Stockholm? Are you comfortable with the outcome of your philanthropic investment being dependent on her schedule?

If you’re the type of philanthropist who likes risk and reward, then short-term funding is an exciting way to go.

If you’re the type of philanthropist who likes risk and reward, then short-term funding is an exciting way to go. Witness the Knight Foundation and its annual Knight Cities Challenge, which funds new ideas by a range of instigators, from novices to experts, that seek to make cities more successful.

(Full disclosure: This columnist’s project received a Challenge grant in the past.)

These are short-term projects, often completed in under 18 months, that can have dramatic impact on cities … or very localized impact on communities. Both types of impact are valid.

These projects might not “fix anything” or “change the world,” but they certainly spark innovation and create ripples of impact that influence public life, policy, career trajectories, and multiple overlapping circles of influence.

You should also think about where you will be in five years. Will you still be in this city? Will you still be passionate about art education? There’s nothing wrong in letting your philanthropic priorities evolve (though I would encourage you to please stick with organizations for at least two years).

If it were me, I’d go for it. Make a contribution, watch what happens, and then decide if you’d like to keep supporting this painter’s vision. Considering where the city, and the country, was in 2012 and where we are now, I think we can all agree that a lot can change in just five years.


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