Our Non-Profit’s Final Breath: 5 Lessons from 15 Years of Organizing
Whether a non-profit is a short-lived fireball that burns out, an institutionalized giant recognizing it’s time to retire, or a solid player that finds itself cash-strapped due to an unforeseen pandemic, finding a meaningful way to shut down can be challenging. Typically when non-profits close their doors, they send out a short email of thanks and then move on with limited explanation as to what happened, or what they learned in the process. Or they might “merge” into another organization in an effort to salvage relevancy (or perhaps even as a face-saving move that hides what may have actually been some form of organizational collapse). Or — they might not have the energy to share anything publicly at all, leaving people to wonder why their website hasn’t been updated since 2009.
This article hopes to buck this trend by being honest about the rise and fall of a non-profit — and what organizing communities can hopefully learn from our experience.
Who we are…and how we decided to shut down
The Responsible Endowments Coalition (REC), after a great, 15-year ride, is sunsetting, and we wanted to share out both the process we took, and the learnings from our successes and failures over time — some due to structural factors within the non-profit industrial complex, some due to human error, all part of a learning process and movement-building process that we’re co-developing the best we can. We really see the 15-year journey of a student founded and driven non-profit as a success story that lived its movement moment, and we hope that our learnings can help guide even greater success and sustainability for future generations of organizers.
In 2004, five students came together from across the country to found a national non-profit focused on the latent power and potential of the over $400B sitting in college and university endowments — REC. I was one of them, ultimately serving as the Founding Executive Director from 2007–2010. Over 15 years we trained and supported thousands of student organizers, leading to real victories around private prisons, fossil fuels, LGBTQ rights, and other issues with billions of dollars reallocated in the process.
In 2020, five board members decided to shut the organization down. We first hired a consultant to conduct a Listening Tour of over 40 allies, students, funders and movement leaders to get a better sense as to what our options were and how we could proceed with the limited resources we had left. We ultimately decided to close doors for the following reasons, noted in REC’s official Public Statement:
- Not wanting to compete for limited resources: REC’s traditional funding sources have significantly declined, which would require the organization to pursue new funding sources. That could put REC in competition with other small, resource-constrained non-profits in the youth organizing space.
- Knowing that reinvigorating the organization would require significant resources in order to hire responsibly and sustainably.
- Acknowledging limited board capacity and concerns about the ability to remain a standalone non-profit.
- The fact that a Listening Tour we conducted to get feedback from allies did not surface a strategic partner that could incorporate REC as an official project on a cross-issue basis.
- Recognizing the strong existing leadership within the movement ecosystem, and seeing an opportunity to step aside as peer organizations evolve and thrive.
We hence have referred to this closing as a “responsible sunset” — to us this means being thoughtful about how to manage organizational resources like training materials, money and funder connections.
This listening tour surfaced five core lessons that we expand on in greater detail below:
- As organizations evolve, their missions must as well
- Burnout doesn’t just burnout people — it scorches organizational culture
- Did we mention….culture matters? Power dynamics of the outside world get replicated inside movements
- Partnerships are awesome, but tough
- Organizations need general support and funder diversity — and in the absence of that, great budgeting
1.As organizations evolve, their missions must as well
REC’s early orientation largely reflected what some refer to as a reformist approach, focusing on responsible investment committees and shareholder activism. Over the years, in response to student needs, it shifted towards what’s considered a more campaign-oriented approach, reflecting a stronger critique of capitalism and dedication to structural change. While the work evolved, the mission did not. This produced identity disconnects, ambiguity about its constituency, and cognitive dissidence. Perceptions of REC’s work varied greatly between staff, board and funders. Some people we heard from on our listening tour felt that parts of the work were (or were not) elevated based on wanting to appear aligned with funder interests. Openly discussing these tensions can be useful in questioning and exploring the utility of non-profits.
Our lessons learned:
- Be clear on your constituency. In REC’s case, that would be identifying whether the primary focus is on supporting those who are interested in working in socially responsible finance, or those interested in rebuilding oppressive structures.
- Be aware of political gaps, and how that will affect the work and employees. If your organization is experiencing growing pains, acknowledge that transformation process, address it transparently across all levels of the organization, and be conscious of how sustaining prolonged contradictions can be toxic to the organization and those it serves.
- There is an indirect lesson about the evolving nature of youth organizing, and not creating an expectation of permanence for any given organization. Success need not be synonymous with longevity.
2. Burnout doesn’t just burnout people — it scorches organizational culture
It’s no secret that frontline workers are overworked and underpaid. We seem to accept this as movement reality — it’s not only unfair, but also counterproductive. We went back to examine why this was happening within our organization over the years, and surfaced the following dynamics that are commonly found in the non-profit space.
Our lessons learned:
- It is hard to say “no” to an exciting new program opportunity. Be sure decisions to do so are fully informed with regards to both benefits and consequences. Be intentional about how (usually limited) resources are allocated. If new projects are added and begin to drain resources, be aware of the tradeoff and make tough decisions about where to focus dollars and staff energy in a manner that is sustainable, impactful, and mission-aligned (remembering that in some cases, the mission may need to be updated to embrace the evolution that’s occurred).
- Support equal distribution of labor (e.g. everyone is pulling their weight in different ways) and create a work environment that prevents the bulk of the work from falling on the shoulders of one or two individuals (often frontline staff).
- Stating the obvious, but it can’t be stated enough, to attract and retain strong candidates, organizations and funders need to be realistic about the cost of living, the importance of valuing employees, and making jobs and salaries sustainable. Do what you can to retain good people by providing a living wage. At times, this may mean delaying growth or turning down under-resourced opportunities.
3. Did we mention…culture matters? Power dynamics and structural inequities of the outside world get replicated inside movements
A sincere desire to focus on the outside world resulted, at times, in less concentration on internal culture — there was often lack of clarity between board and staff roles, and not enough training despite REC’s overall emphasis on hiring and supporting the career development of young people. And while employees and leaders should have a clear of understanding of roles, it’s also important to be conscious of power dynamics that can be easily replicated (within organizations, between organizations, and between funders and grantees).
Our lessons learned:
- Identify organizational values, and how those values are expressed operationally. In other words: don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk. This applies to many areas such as programming and partnerships (who do you partner with, and how), how staff are treated (salaries, expectations, how are they spoken to, how do they receive constructive feedback, what is their opportunity to give constructive feedback upwards), having funder boundaries (where do you draw the line if a funder’s values or behavior are not in alignment with your values), and consent (how do you create a culture of consent, which can be particularly relevant when working with young people).
- Support training needs accordingly (naturally, this is largely dependent upon funders stepping up to provide professional development funds). For example, when you have younger staff, recognize there may be less direct experience in operational areas. New managers should have management training. New E.D.s should have mentors. In many cases, boards also need training (fundraising, finance, HR & personnel etc.)
- Everyone needs training on anti-racism, equity, and cultural competency — especially if doing work to advance social and economic justice.
4. Partnerships are awesome, but tough
REC was a tiny organization that often provided tactical support to much larger, more theme-focused organizations — -similar to a group like The Ruckus Society that teaches direct action to many movements, we taught the tools of social investing and endowment organizing. This meant often playing an important role in broader victories, but generally not making it into the press about them nor having similar capacity to leverage victories for fundraising purposes.
Our lessons learned:
- When collaborating with various organizations, make sure roles are extremely clear and articulated not just for the current moment, but with an eye towards the future as well. Who has decision-making power to change the interaction? What has to be decided mutually? How will fundraising be approached, especially if there are funders in common?
- Make sure, when scheduling check-in calls, to not always just focus on the organizing work at hand — for instance, if you have a weekly coalition call, add a monthly call that’s specifically to provide feedback and input on the collaboration itself.
- In developing partnerships, think through the detailed requirements to conduct the work, and be realistic about necessary compromises.
- Recognize the need for frontline communities (those most directly affected by issues) to be leading movements, and do what is possible to support those communities — which may mean, for instance, prioritizing their funding asks over your own in coalition work.
5. Organizations need general support and funder diversity — and in the absence of that, great budgeting
We’re putting funding last, as people tend to always point to this as the first factor for a flailing organization. Let’s face it — if the first four points aren’t done well, then funding will likely be a problem. But not having solid, diversified funding certainly didn’t help, and not having adequate reserves made it harder to ride the waves of oscillating funder interest, and ensure staff were protected, as much as possible, from the negative impacts of expansions and contractions.
Our lessons learned:
- On the subject of funding diversity, don’t rely on a single funder for a large portion of the budget. There should be a fundraising plan that takes into account the tradeoffs of different funding decisions. Growth around issue-based programs may not be sustainable. On the other hand,general support can potentially limit organizational growth when your organization is focused on a tactic (using finance as a tool for change) rather than a sector (climate justice, workers’ rights, etc) that is less likely to fit a “program area” of a foundation. The lesson here is to diversify funding to the organization in every way that you can.
- Make choices on how to budget in a way that leaves room for some experimentation, but also builds up a reserve. Reserves are critical to the long-term financial health of an organization (e.g. stabilizing finances in the event of an unexpected cash flow shortage).
- Having a staff person dedicated to fundraising is critical. The E.D. and program staff can support fundraising, but do not have capacity to own development work, relationships, and reporting.
- There is also a lesson in here for funders, in terms of the importance of providing long-term (read: multi-year) general operating support to organizations that demonstrate commitment to a shared vision.
We offer these as lessons to the movement, knowing these lessons are not epiphanies, but rather reminders of the ongoing practice that is required to model the changes that organizers wish to see in the world. We know that REC’s legacy lives on in the many young people who were inspired to become lifelong activists. We hope that the legacy of both our successes, and failures, lives on in helping to build stronger movements.