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Our Economies

Good morning, Greater Washington! Let’s start off Monday with an intriguing article from the Chronicle of Philanthropy: “3 Big Concerns About the Economy — and How to Fight Them.” Regarding her third concern, Elizabeth Ortiz writes:

What will happen when the scarcity mentality takes a more-lasting hold? For many of us who came of age in the more prosperous times of the late 1980s and the tech boom of the early 1990s, it’s hard to imagine organizations having to fight to the finish for the few crumbs that are left. I fear a future in which we have individually and collectively lost confidence in our ability to solve problems, overcome challenges, and create our own, better reality.

How to face this fear. Continue to think “abundantly.” This is perhaps the hardest but the most important challenge. This is less about data, statistics, and interest rates and more about faith, hope, and determination. After all, one of my favorite sayings has always been: “The facts, though interesting, are frequently irrelevant.”

My gut reaction, to be honest, was skepticism. After all, how does it benefit us to deliberately not calibrate our thinking and planning with changes in our environment? If our world is changing, would the most logical course be to change with it?

Maybe, maybe not. As I read this piece, I began to think about how the non-profit world occupies a strange and fascinating place in the market. For example, for-profit companies typically operate around the principal of supply and demand: in a competitive market, the demand of consumers and the supply of producers will align at a given price point. But in the non-profit world, we often have no price point, no quantitative index to determine the value of what we produce. On a basic level, many of us do not charge (or purposefully charge below market value) for our goods and services.

Moreover, demand for services (particularly human services, but certainly educational services and cultural organizations) often rises as a result of the very factors that render organizations less able to produce those services. For example, when the economy staggers, demand for shelter, food banks, and more affordable education rises just as grants and public funding fall. Frustratingly, the national economy deeply affects our work, yet we do not benefit from some of the most basic principals of economics. The sources of income are often not on the receiving end of the direct services, and neither the supplier nor the demander sets the price point — in other words, the rules are quite different, and often unpredictable.

To return to the original Chronicle article, our struggling economy has created a culture of scarcity from which no organization fully can escape. However, just as most non-profits do not benefit from basic economic principals, we also are not bound by them. We do not need to adapt our thinking or planning or hoping precisely to the economic landscape because we do not operate solely within it — because our rules are not set in stone. The facts and data and numbers, as Ortiz point out, absolutely have an impact upon us. But they also need not limit us.

Heading towards the next decade of the new millennium, I like to think that with scarcity also comes some extra freedom. So let’s run with that.

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