Washington's Nonprofits: Where 'Remaking America' Begins

By Chuck Bean and Tamara Lucas Copeland
Sunday, January 25, 2009

Among the many indelible images from the past week is one of Barack Obama, paint roller in hand, volunteering at Sasha Bruce Youthwork , our city's only emergency shelter for homeless youth and one of 4,000 active nonprofit organizations serving our region.

If recent weeks are any indication, the Obamas are certain to follow through on their promise to be involved residents of their new home town. They will be involved not merely by sampling the menu at Ben's Chili Bowl or participating in a single, symbolic day of service but by engaging in long-term relationships with organizations in their own back yard that are focused on community improvement.

The economic crisis has had a major impact on nonprofits in the region. Our nonprofits are facing escalating demands and declining resources. Many organizations report an increase in requests for services from people they have never served before.

A recent survey of member nonprofits by the D.C.-based Center for Nonprofit Advancement revealed that one-third have no operating reserves or endowment; 44 percent anticipate their organization will face increased demand for services in 2009; and 41 percent anticipate suspending or closing down programs or laying off staff. At the same time, 47 percent of foundations responding to the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers' October 2008 survey said they will make fewer grants in 2009. Three months later, with a fuller understanding of the crisis, the impact may be even greater.

As President Obama reminds us, our ability to adapt to this new reality depends on the willingness of people throughout our community to work together in a new spirit of optimism. During his visit to Sasha Bruce Youthwork, Obama cautioned that there can't be any "idle hands" when so many people are enduring hardships in these difficult economic times.

At this moment, when the sense of national unity is palpable, our new president has asked us to commit to "a new era of responsibility" and has demonstrated his commitment to that old-fashioned, small-town value of service to others, not just through his rhetoric but by his personal example.

With those values in mind, we call on local and state governments to sustain funding to nonprofits that provide safety net services to our region's most vulnerable neighbors. We call on residents of our community's business and philanthropic communities as well as individual donors to sustain or increase giving in this time of increased need. The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region's Neighbors in Need Fund provides such a vehicle. In addition, our community needs strong United Way and Combined Federal Campaigns this year.

The new president inspires us to believe that a healthy and prosperous community depends on our sense of personal responsibility to attend to the needs of all of our neighbors. Let's all pick up a paint roller. The "remaking of America" begins here.

-- Chuck Bean -- Tamara Lucas Copeland


The writers are, respectively, executive director of the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington and president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company