How Portland’s Nonprofits Color Outside the Lines

Capitalism has its weaknesses, and giving helps to fill in those gaps.

I have been in nonprofit fundraising and event production for over 20 years. And I'm a big believer in community. So when seeking answers, it's only natural that I turn to Portland's nonprofits for solutions. Here's a little context:

We live in a city experiencing rapid growth, and as our population increases, so do our needs. Conversations with friends at happy hour more often than not turn to questions about what we do to improve access, infrastructure and social welfare. Current political debates center on how to address homelessness and crowded schools, and how to fund infrastructure and health care. It's natural to find the number — and extent — of needs overwhelming. My friends and I often feel at a loss how to help — especially when I look at the divisive and polarizing world of policymakers and political leaders. The 24-hour news cycle and a stream of social media provide more input than I can navigate, and often blame people instead of systems, pitting us against each other in polarizing camps of right vs. wrong, left vs. right, old vs. young, etc. We exist in a binary narrative of "either/or" that, all too often, misses the gray areas where we actually live.

And yet those gray areas are where the nonprofit sector is having the most impact on Portland. With over 31,000 registered nonprofits throughout our state, the local nonprofit world is a growing industry that currently employs more than 10 percent of the workforce. But unlike other industries, it does not exist in a competitive marketplace. It is, instead, a mission-based industry built to serve. Similarly, those who work in the nonprofit sector are guided by a motivation to serve the community and create change where needed — and are often tasked to carry out their missions on extremely limited budgets. This creates an environment where both collaboration and creativity thrive, and the binary of "either/or" frequently fades into the background.

As a result, nonprofits are showing up as leaders in our city with real solutions.

Innovation, resilience, impact, community, hope. These are the words I think of when I think about our local nonprofit leaders. As the political debates roll on, it's the nonprofit community that is hard at work finding real solutions and making a real impact. Its collective impact provides an antidote for the divided spaces we live in.

Yet as the needs of our city grow, the demands for this essential sector are stretched thin. Its name alone indicates it is not a workforce built on profitability and resources. But the term "nonprofit" isn't an accurate reflection of the work. Terms like social innovation, culture creation, and community organizing are far more appropriate ways of defining the sector. And while there are some large nonprofits like hospitals and universities, the truth is that the majority of the organizations serving our community are small. So, to create impact and continue in their work of public good, collaboration becomes an essential recipe for success.

Here in Portland, the nonprofit sector is partnering with both government and businesses to build collaborative spaces focused on solutions. That's where we as citizens come in. Each of us has the opportunity to participate in this collaboration and support the work of these innovators. That cause you are most passionate about? There are a team of organizations already focused on changing it for the better. That need you see most in your community? There's probably a group of nonprofits actively addressing it. But these issues can't continue being addressed without your help.

Funding for most organizations comes from a diverse revenue model that includes earned income (or services people pay for), grants from government or foundations, corporate support, and individual giving. Over the past 15 years, every one of these revenue streams has been steadily declining, with one exception: individual giving. Giving USA estimates you and I account for more than 70 percent of the revenue in the nonprofit sector. And the World Giving Index rates Oregon as the 18th-most generous state in the country. So, the question is: Can we do better? Can we do more?

Let's start first with the big picture. According to Jeff Raikes of the Raikes Foundation, giving is a way to correct market failures. Capitalism has its weaknesses, and giving helps to fill in those gaps. If you think of capitalism as a means of producing goods and services for profit, you can think of the nonprofit sector as a means of producing structural support and change for social benefit. It is a sector not restrained by risk or profitability. Instead, nonprofits are a place of collaboration with the goal of helping people — a place where we can connect over shared values and scale good ideas. This makes giving a way to be a part of the solution.

Now, let's look at the personal benefit. Dozens of studies show people who give are happier. Households who participate in giving report better health indicators and, once again, overall improved happiness. Studies show helping others helps us to live longer. And giving isn't only about writing a check. Giving is about sharing our resources, volunteering our time, providing our skills and expertise to create the world we want to live in. And through giving, we have an impact and help our city — and we find joy.

So, how do you get involved? The first step is to find a way to do something good every week. Find a nonprofit doing work you care about, and get involved in little ways: make a donation online, attend a fundraising event, volunteer an hour of your time. If you enjoy leadership, look for a board or a committee to serve on. If you prefer direct impact, call the organizations you care about most and offer your time to be a supplemental staff member. You'll quickly find where your passions and skill set allow you to have the biggest impact.

I'm a big fan of cycling. So, every year, I join my friends in fundraising rides that support causes we're all passionate about. It's a great way for us all to have fun cycling together and make an impact. I'm also a small business owner, so I offer my entrepreneurial support serving as a board member. That said, if you don't have the privilege of donating your time and you need an easier way to support a cause, give. There are many causes I care about, so I give gifts that are small to others but big to me. Financial contributions are a requirement for organizations to thrive, and I hope my gifts of $20 inspire others to join and that, collectively, we end up giving $2,000 to a cause we care about.

The nonprofit sector allows me to be an agent of social change, amplify my impact and create the world I want to live in — even if I don't work in it. I am grateful such an industry exists, and I am thankful for the nonprofits that truly make Portland the city I love.

Connect with some of Portland's most impactful non-profits at 

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