Q+A with Bill Parent, Director of the Center for Civil Society at UCLA

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Q+A with Bill Parent, Director of the Center for Civil Society at UCLA

Since 2002, the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs’ Center for Civil Society has researched the state of the nonprofit sector in Los Angeles. The resulting annual State of The Nonprofit Sector in Los Angeles reports have been instrumental in providing a picture of the current landscape and valuable perspective on actionable next steps for our community to consider.

In a recent OpEd, Bill Parent, Director of the Center for Civil Society, shared that this year’s report, which he co-authored, will outline serious challenges, most notably a substantial decrease in annual individual giving.

I recently sat down with Bill to ask him a few questions about the report, which will be released at our 501(c)onference on June 3 the day after we unveil our 2016 Sector Snapshot.

How has the sector evolved over the years that you have been doing the survey?

I think first of the changes in the psychology of the sector, and the best answer to that question can be seen across the titles of the reports. The early reports had gung-ho titles like New Horizons and Meeting the Challenge. Then, as the great recession descended, there was Facing Uncertainty, then Resilience and Vulnerability, then a string of titles that sound more like they might be names of blues albums: Hard Times, Spread Thin, Stressed and Stretched. I think those titles in sequence describe the era very well from a management view.

state of the sectorLooking back, I wish we had the vision and resources to have done nonprofit sector reports on things like Innovation and Creativity, Impact, Leadership, there was a lot of all that, as well. Those titles were deserved too.

Second, I think of the knowledge state of the sector. Over the past fifteen years, there has been a major evolutionary step in the smarts and self-awareness of the Los Angeles nonprofit sector. The greatest force in that was, by design, building The California Endowment as an actual campus for the sector. Civil Society has a home in Los Angeles. When I started getting involved with the Los Angeles nonprofit world, I knew very little, and it was very hard to navigate and learn. As I made my rounds, I remember thinking that not many people actually knew much beyond their own daily concerns, they were all spread out, and only occasionally spoke to each other. But The Endowment, and the commitment to capacity building by the foundations during the recession, has led a real change in that. We might be broke, but we’re pretty smart; people learn and connect much more quickly. And at least as far as melon slices, little muffins, and cheese cubes can take us, we don’t have to go hungry during power point presentations.

What do you think are the most important trends coming out of the survey?

This survey and report focus on individual giving. To me the most important trends are the ones that are strongly implied by the report.

One, individual giving is a very finite resource for nonprofits. And the way we are growing and evolving as a civic culture across a region, individual giving is pretty much going to be what it is, or a bit less for a while. I hope we’re proven wrong on that.

Two, public and private higher education and a significant share of public and private secondary education, have over the past 25 years or so, invaded the pool of individual giving like a gang of cannon-balling teenagers. For publics, this is an unintended consequence of state governments defunding public higher education and holding tuition down. For private schools, it is necessary for competition and survival. We have to be aware of this. Realize that smaller nonprofits are up against very sophisticated campaigns. The purpose of pointing this out is to try to prevent it from being a zero-sum game. Need-based student support versus support for homeless persons? We have to do better than that. Our survey showed homelessness is the number one concern for donors. I’m guessing many of us who answer the call from their alma maters or an orchestra are hardly aware of the names of the best homeless services nonprofit providers in our communities. But we certainly aren’t allowed to forget the name and needs of dear old Whatsamatta U. Human services nonprofits and higher education are all rungs on the opportunity ladder.

What should foundations take from this research?

Grist for a couple of good conversations and debates, I hope.

First, a question, should and could foundations work to mobilize people to give more to charitable, community based causes, or to give at least something? I don’t pretend to know the answer. That’s a tough one.

Second, as foundations often work to wean nonprofit organizations from their support to “multiple funding streams,” how much do they assume is in the streams? Based on what? The “you can teach a man to fish” thing works only as long as there are enough fish.

Third, what should foundations’ role in these larger policy questions be? Foundations can be big players for their size when it comes to the levers around nonprofit tax reform law, human services and education funding, and opportunities to focus public awareness. These are big inequality levers too.

Are you trying to depress us with the titles of these surveys?

Well this will be the last one from the UCLA Luskin School. The Center for Civil Society had a good little run. I know I speak for Barbara Nelson, Helmut Anheier, Laurie Spivak, Zeke Hasenfeld, Jocelyn Guihama, all of our PhD and graduate students through the years, and allies and friends across the sector to say that we are forever grateful to have learned from, and to have served this community. The Luskin School will be reconfiguring its research and teaching in the sector across its three departments of public policy, social welfare and urban planning. I look forward to being a part of that.

And as for the report, honestly, I am really struggling with a title for this one. But I am afraid you are still going to find it in the blues section.


Hear more from Bill about the State of the Nonprofit Sector at our 501(c)onference, June 2-3. Learn more and register