A survival guide for nonprofits in tough times

Cindy McMahon


I love living in the mountains, where I can get up high and gain perspective on the landscape.

WNC Nonprofit Pathways enjoys a unique vantage point for viewing the trends, challenges and opportunities facing nonprofit organizations in our region. Pathways is a collective of four local funders: The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County, Mission Health and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation. Additional support comes from The Duke Endowment, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation. When the leaders of these organizations come together, the ideas and insights fly.

Pathways is a funders’ collaborative: Our purpose is to strengthen the nonprofits that help communities succeed. We provide training and consulting for organizations across North Carolina’s 18 western counties, helping them plan for the future, strengthen their boards of directors, learn how to increase fundraising and improve all areas of management. We dive in deep with the organizations we serve. In so doing, we get an up-close perspective on the daily challenges faced and the achievements celebrated by groups of all sizes, both rural and urban. These nonprofits’ programs run the gamut from the environment and the arts to education and human services.

What are we hearing? Frankly, it’s a bit of a crazy time for nonprofits.

Environmental advocates are fighting fiercely in the courts and the media as they watch state and federal lawmakers challenge the protections for public lands, water, air and green energy.

Concerned citizens and undocumented residents from other countries are flooding the doors of nonprofit Latino centers across the region. They ask, “What are my rights?” “How do I make sure my children will be taken care of if I am detained?” “What can you do for me and my family?”

Meanwhile, nonprofit clinics and other health organizations are operating in an ongoing fog about the future of the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid and the insured and uninsured children and families they serve. What will change in the world of health care coverage? How will health organizations fund their services in the future? If you don’t have a crystal ball, it’s hard to find any answers.

President Trump has announced a plan to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment,” the federal tax law provision that requires 501(c)(3) nonprofits to be nonpartisan. If this provision is abolished, it will dramatically change the landscape for the sector and most likely damage the public’s trust in nonprofit organizations.

Organizations that receive federal funding find themselves with huge question marks around grants that have already been awarded. There are rumors that funding will be retracted in the middle of grants. Even government staffers can’t tell executive directors whether they can count on the full amount that was promised. How are they to move forward with these programs?

Even arts organizations face new challenges amid the intensified political divides of the day. All art carries a message. What plays do we stage, and who will we offend in the process? What statements do we want to make with our art installations?

In a time of uncertainty and volatile change, local nonprofits are doing their best to remain strong and adapt. And unlike their counterparts in other areas of the state, nonprofits here in the mountains do have access to the low- and no-cost services provided by WNC Nonprofit Pathways, which can help them navigate the current turbulent environment. Based on our collective experience guiding many organizations through difficult times, we offer local nonprofit leaders these reminders:

  1. Use your core mission as a touchstone. Your organization’s strength comes from the commitment to addressing its key purpose. Do you have programs or practices that pull you away from that centering core? Now may be a time to re-focus on what matters most to your organization.
  2. Engage the board. Remember to include the board of directors as you consider whatever policy or funding changes may be coming down the pike. Don’t avoid the tough topics! You may be surprised at the wisdom that arises in a roomful of your strongest advocates.
  3. Create contingency plans. Be prepared! Consider the various changes that may impact your organization. What would be the best response to each? Keep in mind that you may need more than just Plan B: What are Plans C, D and E?
  4. Speak up! Now more than ever, local, state and federal officials need to hear how proposed policy changes may affect your constituencies. And if your board is interested in learning how they can be involved in advocacy, Pathways can help.
  5. Prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion. Organizations are stronger when they represent a variety of voices and perspectives. Reach out to include diverse leaders on your board and staff, and make an effort to ensure that new and different perspectives are heard and valued.

And remember: Strengthening your organization is more important now than ever! The nonprofits that survive tough times are those that focus their attention inward as well as outward. WNC Nonprofit Pathways can help your organization withstand the inevitable storms — so you can continue to serve those who need you the most.

To learn more about WNC Nonprofit Pathways, visit nonprofitpathways.org. Asheville resident Cindy McMahon is the organization’s senior consultant.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

9 thoughts on “A survival guide for nonprofits in tough times

  1. Deplorable Infidel

    sorry, but there are WAY WAY too many ‘non-profits’ sopping up taxpayer money all over the place…time to curtail and cut back

    all these ‘snowflakes’ who seek a position at a ‘non-profit’ should strive for a higher level of employment and career choice…
    many non profits are pretty much ‘worthless’ … avoid the ‘non-profit’ world if you can.

    • hauntedheadnc

      Meanwhile, many other nonprofits provide vital, lifesaving services, which would make it kind of impossible to avoid them.

    • NFB

      For years the righties have been insisting that government is trying to do too much and that charity should be left to non-profits. Now we hear about there are too many non-profits and we should avoid them.

      Misanthropy at its deepest, darkest and most cynical.

      • Deplorable Infidel

        OH, non profits are great if they’re not stealing in TAXPAYER money…THAT is the PROBLEM in total… taxpayers are damn tired of it.

        • Hauntedheadnc

          Nonprofits like WNCAP, WNCCHS, and all the child placement agencies that offer or find homes for foster children, such as Eliada, aren’t stealing a damn thing, Fisher. They’re providing vital services… albeit to the poor, the sick, abandoned children, and others you would prefer just die off, but still. Without the nonprofits, who’s going to do what needs to be done? You?

          • NFB

            “Without the nonprofits, who’s going to do what needs to be done? You?”

            That’s a rhetorical question, right?

        • BRO

          I work at a nonprofit, and have worked at many over the years. We don’t “steal” money – we apply for grants, which have measurable outcomes on which we are regularly assessed. The rest of the funds we receive are generously donated by individuals, corporations and organizations.

          I can also tell you that without nonprofits, we’d have people starving in WNC, thousands more living on the streets, among many other terrible outcomes.

          How do you, Deplorable Infidel, want to help your fellow humans? You’ve made it clear that you don’t want government to help. So if not nonprofits – how do you plan on making sure that our fellow citizens get the help they need?

  2. Deplorable Infidel

    making them way more self sufficient! require schools to actually TEACH some skills !!! lotsa ways! there were very few
    ‘non profits’ years ago and we made it just fine…let people tend to their own business. they must LEARN how to survive! we live in the land of gimme gimme gimme and that ideal must stop at taxpayer burden!

  3. Stan Hawkins

    I am late to this commentary, noticing the comment from the author on the position of 501c requirement to be non-partisan. This rule seems to be like one if those speed limit regulations that say 55 maximum speed, while everyone zooms buy you at 70mph.

    Correct me if I am wrong, I’m guessing that if you are a well connected non-profit with funds available let’s say from Buncombe County / Asheville City tax payers you probably are pretty well partisan to liberal progressive big government? I would prefer to give my funds directly more efficiently, particularly in light of recent revelations in Buncombe government.

    I am not saying your mission statement is wrong. As an observer, it seems that we would have a more conservative / liberal blend of representative local goverment if there are truly non partisans among the rank and file of the non-profit community leadership, staff, and resource beneficiaries.

    Explain please how I am wrong, setting your mission statements aside?

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.