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Resilient nonprofits

As we rethink society for a post-petroleum, economically-lean future, it’s opportunity to rethink nonprofit structures, too. As stated before, we need to set up environmental and social change organizations as entities that will endure, instead of going bankrupt. Rather than looking for how to fund activities through this transition time, and binding ourselves to a model of eternally-scrapping-for-fundraising (“Where can we fundraise?” “Where can we get grants?” “Where can we get money?”), creating new nonprofit organizations in a time of economic contraction presents us with opportunity to rethink the idea of service-based organizations altogether.

What about the cash-free nonprofit (or at least a “lower-cash nonprofit”): In one of our Los Angeles local groups, we recently held an event about ways a neighborhood could share finances — everything from garden sharing to alternative currencies to group purchasing. These represent an alternative view of economics. For the same reasons we urge an individual to be thinking about cash-free or lean-cash ways of meeting his needs, our nonprofit organizations will need to do the same. One online pamphlet, “The Community Way,” describes a scrip-type program which could possibly help support a nonprofit’s cash needs. Here in L.A. our San Fernando Valley group runs all of its operations through a time bank. Ensenstein’s “gift culture” offers another avenue.

What about the employee-free nonprofit: Many of the recent efforts of advocates of “the green economy” are geared toward development of jobs (as in, traditional white-collar desk jobs which pay nice W2 salaries) and “growing this sector.” Yet we in the Transition movement understand that all sectors of society are being impacted by the end of cheap oil; all sectors are shrinking; and if we review biocapacity/global footprint constraints, we’ll understand why no sectors can possibly expect to be growing, whether green or not-green. In a world of shrinking cash resources, creating new “nice W2 salaries” of any kind is tenuous-to-unlikely. The age of the salaried nonprofit executive is probably nearing its end. And in fact salaried executives (representing a single, influential viewpoint) might be in conflict with the circular-structured, working-group-representative, engaged-creativity models that our Transition Trainings are teaching us to use. For administrative and clerical tasks, barter-based labor, time bank-based labor, LETS system-based labor, and volunteerism are all much more likely scenarios.

What about the premises-free nonprofit: It requires networking, but hey, isn’t networking a pretty wise way to operate anyway? Here in the Los Angeles area, our various local Transition groups are using on a regular and ongoing basis the hall of an Episcopal church, the hall of a Methodist church, the premises of a yoga center, the open space at a community garden in a public school, some private homes, a meeting room in a public library, and they’ve been offered a room in a private school. Each of these has required us to form working relationships with the premises owners, fostering connections which in many cases are becoming supportive, rich, mutually enlightening, and interdependent. We didn’t just “find” these generous people; we co-evolved and grew together.

What about the legalities-free nonprofit: Our Los Angeles initiating group has sustained more than 5 years of ongoing, active operations without any legal existence. It isn’t a 501(c)(3). It isn’t a corporation. It doesn’t even have a checking account. Admittedly, this type of invisible operations probably won’t work for all circumstances, but it may work for many.

As we talk about reducing consumption, our “nonprofit organizations” are a chance to model stuff-free behavior. The challenge is: how much can you do with how little? If you think about the typical office setup with a Permaculture eye, you can see the waste. Transition groups have to be different. In many cases, office equipment and personal property isn’t necessary; most of these can be short-term borrowed as needed, or dealt with in some form of co-op arrangement. We don’t need single-use items, and reducing paper is a no-brainer. Glossy, expensive, full-corporate-services web presence isn’t necessary (realize that vast swathes of the general population have limited or low-tech computer capabilities so they can’t access all that fancy stuff — rather than “better communications,” in many cases it actually deepens demographic divides). Keep it simple. It’s hard for us to remember when we’ve grown up amidst a more-more-more world that this time around it’s the message that counts, not the trappings. Our new view of organization, our new view of nonprofits will have to reflect that.