By Robin Heffler
On Friday, October 23, the UCLA Center for Civil Society in the UCLA School of Public Affairs released a report detailing the mixed impact of the current economic downturn on the local non-profit sector, delivering its findings in person to 185 representatives of non-profit organizations in the greater Los Angeles area, and receiving their immediate feedback.
Among the major findings were that most Los Angeles-area nonprofit organizations have experience reductions in funding from government and private foundations, while costs and demands for their services have risen. Yet the nonprofits largely have been able to retain their volunteers, staff, and programs.
The report, Resilience and Vulnerability: The State of the Nonprofit Sector in Los Angeles  , was presented at the Center’s annual conference for local nonprofits, held at the Skirball Cultural Center. Researched and written by David B. Howard and Hyeon Jong Kil (both doctoral researchers in Social Welfare), it was based on a survey of more than 250 non-profit organizations from June to August 2009. There are about 41,500 registered nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles County.
One conference attendee, Abbe Lande of the Saban Free Clinic, echoed the report’s findings when she told other participants, “At every staff meeting we talk about tightening our belts. We keep doing more with less—trying to squeeze in more patients without hiring more staff --and the pressure to produce is intense. We’re seeing more people come in for the first time with incomes of about 200 percent of the poverty level. A lot of it is for mental health services.”
To better weather the recession, the report recommended that nonprofits focus more on program evaluation to better attract funders and make decisions about scarce resources; engage in widespread advocacy efforts, including discussions about policy decisions with elected officials and lawmakers; and collaborate with other nonprofits to decrease costs, increase efficiency, and share knowledge, merging when necessary.
Ted Knoll, who runs the Whittier Area First Day Coalition, which provides services for those who are homeless or at-risk of being homeless, said he appreciated both the “content and process” of the conference. “We did a merger in 2001, so I know this is doable,” he said. “The conference has made me think about possibly doing it again. At the same time, I’m networking with people I haven’t seen in years.”
Conference participants shared their experiences during small-group discussions on the findings. David Howard said that feedback will be included in an addendum to the report. “It helps us to tell a clearer story of what’s happening to nonprofits, which helps deliver messages that often get lost in the numbers,” he said.
In closing remarks, Helmut Anheier, founding director of the Center, said, “We will have a slow recovery for nonprofits. We didn’t learn the lessons from the previous recessions – that you need to prepare for them when times are good. This crisis will push business and nonprofits closer because there is little that the government can offer. Nonprofits will need to make sure that their concerns are part of the political agenda.”
The entire conference proceedings may be viewed on the UCLA iTunesU site .