Thursday, March 08, 2007

Too many for what, exactly?

Next month I'm attending a discussion gathering of foundation staffs for which the invitation begins, "As non-profits grow in number and stretch available resources..." Notice that this premise is stated as simple obvious fact: that the number of non-profits has been growing faster than the available funding for them. That's a widely-believed factoid which has made it into the mainstream media; its a commonplace among foundation staffers. It is easily the most-common reaction I hear to this recent report that my foundation published online.

The thing is, as stated it simply isn't true: the number of non-profits in the U.S. has not grown faster than overall non-profit revenues, indeed hasn't even kept up with the growth in charitable giving.

Independent Sector says that non-profits roughly doubled in number from 1980 to 2005; or put another way, that non-profit employment doubled from 1977 to 2001. The IRS reports (see Table 16 there) that the number of tax returns filed by non-profits increased by 138% from 1985 to 2002. [It makes sense that this increase would be a bit higher than the overall creation of new groups because the filing threshold has not been indexed for inflation.] So okay let's take that basic premise as documented: that there are somewhere around twice as many non-profits as a quarter century ago.

That same IRS table shows that total non-profit revenues increased by 112% above inflation from 1985 to 2002. (The table shows raw totals not adjusted for inflation; I applied this inflation calculator which uses the official federal Consumer Price Index through the years to make conversions.) And apparently non-profit spending has not been increasing as fast as have the revenues, because the IRS figures show total non-profit fund balances increasing by 161% above inflation in the same period.

For some corroboration I checked the printed Giving USA 2005 report: it says (page 26) that total charitable contributions in the U.S. increased by 148% above inflation from 1980 to 2004. [The heavy growth has been in non-religious giving: giving to religious organizations grew only 66% during those years (page 37).]

The time periods of these various figures don't match up exactly, and obviously there may be large differences between types of non-profits. With all that stipulated, it is clear that overall this particular piece of conventional wisdom is not rooted in reality: the booming growth in this sector is not at all "stretching available resources". At a minimum, arguments that we now have "too many non-profits" need to be driven by a different issue.

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