Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Are there too many nonprofits?

Most times when someone says that there are too many nonprofits they end up talking about how little money there is for all of them to survive. Sometimes I think we ask the wrong questions as we head down that line of reasoning.

I had a short conversation with Bennett Helms where he described how he has found a source for the old style school desks, you know, the ones where you lift a lid and put your books inside and the lid is actually the writing surface for the desk. He said that Charleston School District is replacing those old style desks with group work tables. He found the desks cost $500 new but he can get them from county surplus for $5 each.

He takes them to the Police Department. They use detainees to clean up the desks and make them look new. The people being held by the police are eager to have the distraction. They know that they are making a difference in the life of some kid.

He has got a friend who engraves signs. He asked if his friend would mind engraving some signs for free...for the kids. He puts the name of the child on the desk and the desk becomes, perhaps, the only piece of furniture the child can call his own. The police put their logo on the desk too.

Bennett also has a couple of friends with pick-up trucks. They deliver the desks to the children at their homes.

Mr. Helms is a member of Rotary and he asked them for a few hundred dollars to buy the desks. The purchase of surplus goods sets in motion the whole chain of events leading to a school desk being placed in some kid's home. Rotary is happy because they are helping kids too.

Is there a business plan? No. Is there a Board of Trustees, Annual Meetings, marketing materials, etc.? Nope.

Are they efficient? Only if you look at yield per dollar. The whole process is fragile and dependent on the goodwill of everyone involved. From an efficiency point of view you have to know that sometimes it takes a while to get the desks distributed.

The point is not the money, or the speed of delivery, rather its value comes from the chain of concern for the community...and of course the direct benefit to the kids.

So how many chains of connection between donors and the community are too many?

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