Balancing the Mission Checkbook

So many surveys, so many questions

How many surveys have you completed that gathered information about how the recession is affecting your nonprofit? I think that we’ve gotten at least ten requests to complete surveys in the past six months (and have responded to at least five or six). With the ease of surveying using SurveyMonkey, Zoomerang, and other services, it seems like everyone with a computer has recently conducted a survey about the recession. I gathered the various reports I’ve received lately and searched for others, finding many, many more.

Surveys are great and provide some reliable data and a lot of anecdotal information for use in case statements and meeting discussions. The surveys range from large, national organizations collecting data from several thousand organizations to local groups who reach a few dozen. Some surveys employed carefully planned research techniques, while others sent out a shotgun email and let respondents self-select. Whatever the audience, method, or response rate, all of the surveys I read came up with the same information: funding is down, demand is up, and nonprofits are turning themselves inside out – including deep cost cuts – in order to maintain services in the community.

  • Guidestar’s survey (2,979 organizations) identified the basics: reduced income, reduced services, reduced expenses. The size of the respondent pool is impressive.
  • Nonprofit Finance Fund (986 organizations) warned that nonprofits are “In Danger” and “Strained to the breaking point” with over 80% anticipating deficits this year and cash reserved down.
  • Bridgespan Group’s survey (100 organizations), which was a follow up to last fall’s report, found that the situation had worsened and nonprofits were turning to tough measures, including deep costs cuts and use of reserves.
  • Impact of the 2007-2009 Economic Recession on Nonprofit Organizations issued by Listening Post Project at Johns Hopkins University employs a recurring panel of selected and random nonprofits in several fields (363 organizations). The in-depth analysis reports that 80% of respondents are experiencing financial stress, but that most have maintained or increased the number of people served.
    • A particularly interesting comment is that “nonprofits appear to be at least partly buffered by government policies that are designed to be counter-cyclical, i.e. to expand when economic conditions deteriorate.” Reading this month’s headlines about state budgets, I’m surprised to read that government funding offers an offset to reductions in other sources.
  • In direct contrast, the May 2009 Current Conditions Report from Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (571 organizations) reported that nonprofits are “bracing for extended impact” that is exacerbated by reductions in state and local funding and uncertainty about further reductions.
  • Similar reports of financial strain can be found from the Christian Leadership Alliance (250 organizations), United Way of the Bay Area (391 organizations), and state nonprofit associations in Louisiana (312 organizations), New Jersey (351 organizations), and Arizona (87 organizations), among many others. There are many, many other surveys – for the arts, hospitals, environmental organizations, and on.

Thanks to the 6,390 nonprofits for taking the time to respond to the surveys listed above

Each survey report has its own focus, tone and summaries, although with some interesting contrasts. All report declines and reductions, but some use phrases like “struggling to survive” and “threats to well-being,” while others are more upbeat about the creativity, adaptability, and resilience (one of the most frequently used words). There are lots of comments about difficult decisions, uncertainty, program redesign and modification, new collaborations, focus on core mission, and contingency planning.

What they also all report is the great commitment and sacrifices being made by those who are employed by and volunteer for the responding nonprofits. One of the common themes is reductions in personnel costs through freezes, salary reductions, and furloughs at the same time that the organizations are serving more people with new and more complex needs. This is my greatest concern – for how long can nonprofits rely on staff and volunteers working more and harder, for less, to meet growing community needs?

I’m always cautious when I read reports since this kind of quick action survey relies on answers from a self-selected sliver of the sector. The surveys provide interesting and useful data to start planning, but it’s not sufficient to draw reliable conclusions. I’m interested now in reading some case stories of change and transformation. That is likely to take more time to achieve than a 10 minute survey, but it will be worth it.


Kate Barr believes that every nonprofit financial question relates to strategy, structure and mission impact. She enjoys interpreting financial information to find stories numbers can tell. She loves writing, teaching, and talking with interesting people.