A major conservation donor of my acquaintance now describes his world as being on fire. It is hard for him, at the epicenter of this great economic upheaval, to imagine how those of us on the periphery of the Wall Street war zone can feel the enormity of its impacts as he does. It wouldn't help if I mentioned that we all have savings that have evaporated, budgets that have been slashed, seen the institutions we work for tremble at the brink of collapse and know many people, in our field and in his, who have lost their jobs in the last 6 months. This experience is still a personal, rather than collective one. We are not yet able to compare apples with oranges. By any measure, he is still wealthy. But relative to where he was, he is flat on his back. If I lost 50-65% of my net worth I'd be living in the street.
From where I sit, non-profits are reeling, and there is no bail out for this sector of the economy. One national NGO where I have many friends just laid off 15% of its staff and further reduced its workforce by eliminating positions. It is not clear that even surgeryhas staunched the hemorrhaging, but its near term impact is to go on life support, to contract and in certain key areas to abandon the field. It is no accident, after all, that our cousins across the pond call layoffs "retrenchments".
The problem for larger non-profits when they drop local programs and abandon markets where they have previously made significant investments is that it costs one of their most precious assets - their reputation. It is extremely hard to rebuild confidence in the value you bring when you are perceived as an unstable, unreliable partner. In one nearby community, there is a beautifully painted sign outside an historic structure describing it as the office of several local non profits, and also one national one that has not staffed a desk or answered a phone there for half a dozen years. At the time the sign was made, the expectation must have been that the partnership would be of long-standing. The change may have been unavoidable and the expectations of local partners unrealistic, but nevertheless they were real. That national non-profit,while it still works in the region, has still not recovered its local reputation and continued turnover just resets the clock.
Loss of market share and reputation may be acceptable casualties in a struggle to survive. An amputation of a limb to save the body still results in lasting trauma. A friend of mine reminds me that sometimes the healthiest thing for the species is to thin the herd. Disturbance is a great agent of change in natural systems and human societies. It is just that sometimes all that grows back is weeds.