So Long, Farewell, Goodbye


Metaphors and clichés may lessen the pain of ceasing to exist, but closing is a somewhat frequent occurrence in the nonprofit sector. Nationally, we may read about the demise of a nonprofit on a weekly basis—and those stories are usually about the bigger, more established groups; the small organizations don’t usually garner attention from the press. Consider just a few headlines over the past weeks from stories in The Wall Street Journal to the Chronicle of Philanthropy to the Nonprofit Quarterly.

“San Jose Rep Theater Goes Under; Latest Down in Recent Arts Upheavals”

“Breast Cancer Support Group to Liquidate”

“Adult Education Center Closes”

“Minnesota Group Servicing Disabled Closes”

“Major Hospital in New York Closes”

“Scandal-Plagued Texas Cancer Agency’s Foundation to Close”

“$112-Million Stupski Foundation Shuts its Doors”

“Charlotte Set to Lose a Nonprofit Theater with Strong Area Ties”

Unfortunately, Milwaukee has not been spared from similar losses. Since the Fund started awarding grants in 1994, 111 of its grantees are no longer with us, which seems to be a very large number on its own. This figure represents nearly 8% of the total number of applicants to the Fund over the past 20 years. From another perspective, it may be just what our civic leaders have hoped to hear. The “lopper offers”, as one Fund committee member who shall remain nameless fondly called the group of civic leaders who seem to enjoy saying there are too many nonprofits, repeatedly cry “Just lop off the [small][arts][poor][unknown] nonprofits”, or any other term that corrals all but the biggest and most institutional of our local organizations.

We acknowledge that the organizations qualified for grants from the Nonprofit Management Fund are smaller, less structured, and perhaps more fragile than larger institutions. Yet, even Milwaukee’s Symphony and YMCA have recently made front pages with their financial woes and potential bankruptcy.

Over the years, we have said goodbye to LaFarge Lifelong Learning Institute, Elder Care Line, Aurora Weier Education Center, Christian Family Gathering, Greater Milwaukee Educational Trust, Islamic Family and Social Services, and Hmong Educational Advancements. Certainly, these groups were not of a singular mission, nor the same community.

Some of us miss being entertained by: Ballet Wisconsin, Great Lakes Opera Company, Heritage Chorale, Theatre X, Great American Children’s Theater, Bialystock & Bloom Theatre Company, Foothold Dance Performance, Hotel Milwaukee, and Milwaukee Shakespeare. Although all of these groups shared similar missions, they ranged from ballet to music and from traditional to contemporary.

Achieving the mission of some that have passed away is still critical to our community: Metcalfe Park Residents Association, Day Care Advocates of Milwaukee, Leaders’ Forum, Latino Health Organization, Golf Foundation of Wisconsin, Project Equality, Fair Lending Coalition, and Walker’s Point Development Corporation. Who will champion these causes?

Why did we lose so many nonprofits?

Did we make bad grants? Were our grants too small? Were the organizations too far gone when we started funding them? Was it a case of survival of the fittest? What would it have taken to ensure a positive turnaround?

So many organizations…so many questions.

While we mourn our losses, we also need to drive ahead. I do not nor have I ever subscribed to the lopper-offer credo. I firmly believe in a market place model where competition could be healthy. (On the other hand, why do we have 4 dry cleaners in one strip mall or 11 hair salons in one neighborhood?) Yet, in the nonprofit sector, multiple educational opportunities, an array of social services, or broad-based entertainment, seem to raise the collective hackles of so many business leaders. Certainly, inefficient or ineffective organizations should not continue to slurp philanthropic dollars, but just because that organization is large or this group has been around a long time is not a reason to fund only the established.

If our community’s nonprofit/public/commercial sectors are healthy, our quality of life is enhanced. It takes small, medium, and large businesses, governmental departments, and many sizes of nonprofit organizations to create a dynamic, vibrant, and prosperous ecosystem in every community.  I salute those groups that started, shared, and eventually departed, thanks for trying.

5 comments | Add a New Comment
1. Rob Meiksins | July 15, 2014 at 07:28 PM EDT

I appreciate your comments. Certainly, nonprofits come and go just as businesses do. Certainly,also, small is not bad. The vast majority of nonprofits are small and, as someone said to me this evening, they are closer in size and nature to the corner mom and pop grocery store on the corner. They have a similar budget and they are in and of the community they serve. Just as the mom and pop does something different than Pick N Save, so do the small nonprofits do something different than the large ones. And we need them both, so we must support them both.

2. Paula Lucey | July 15, 2014 at 09:32 PM EDT

Seems to me that part of the issue is that we ( Milwaukee, USA?) do not have a good model for meaningful collaboration. All of these agencies made meaningful contributions but they also all had to support infrastructure. Too often sharing services leads to a take over and that makes agencies unwilling to share. If we could establish a way to share support services and honor the unique contributions perhaps a fuller community life could be had.

3. Brenda Skelton | July 15, 2014 at 10:31 PM EDT

Excellent, Pat. I have been in too many meetings with the lopper-offers!

4. Francis X. Vogel | July 16, 2014 at 02:30 PM EDT

First, Pat, nice teaser subject line to bring us to the blog! I'm very glad you're still here, even if many worthy NPOs are no longer with us. Likewise, I agree with you, and Rob, that our community needs nonprofits large and small to meet our considerable needs. As to the broader question you pose regarding why southeastern Wisconsin has lost so many nonprofits, the Great Recession and its aftermath have taken their toll, right up to the present day.

We must also consider those NPOs that struggle mightily to stay afloat, some a mere shadow of their former, more robust self. Sometimes a modest, though timely, funding boost can make or break an organization living on the edge, one not yet ready to acknowledge that the bell, eventually, tolls also for them.

5. Jim Marks | July 16, 2014 at 03:57 PM EDT

Pat- I share your sentiments regarding the value of nonprofits regardless of size and the important role of the marketplace in their development and evolution. We have to remember that very few nonprofits start out \\\large\\\. I recall more than 20 years ago Paul Schmitz coming to my office at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to make the case to start a program called Public Allies in Milwaukee. We made a relatively modest grant to help it get started and look where it is today with Milwaukee as the national headquarters and more than 20 affiliates around the country. United Community Center began as a small south side drop in center called the Spot. And the AIDS Resource Center had a similarly humble beginning. We can't always of course pick such \\\winners\\\ but I think it's important that the Nonprofit Management Fund and other funders continue to give smaller, nascent nonprofits the opportunity to test the marketplace waters and possibly grow to beoome larger contributors to the community.

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