Public Policy Forum Blog

Milwaukee's nonprofit sector bounces back

In an election year as historic as this one, debate naturally zeroes in on the role of government – to address individual needs, solve community problems, or even effect change beyond our country’s borders. Here in Milwaukee, much of the local news of late has focused on what City or County government should or should not do with respect to public safety and violence prevention.

Many are not aware, however, of the important work of the nonprofit and charitable sector – often behind the scenes and in partnership with government – to address essential public issues that include health, poverty, crime, education, arts and culture, and many others. In response to the outbreak of violence in Sherman Park this past summer, for example, a group of local private foundations and officials from the city’s Office of Violence Prevention gathered to discuss actions they could take and coordinate to better respond to what they saw as the racial and economic disparities that contributed to the unrest. A recent op-ed pointed to charitable organizations as offering key community perspective instrumental in “crafting policies that are both effective and equitable.”

The Public Policy Forum long has recognized the symbiotic link between government and the nonprofit sector and the importance of social and economic dynamics in shaping both the health and strategy of nonprofit organizations. Most recently, we surveyed area nonprofits to assess their current fiscal health, challenges, and sense of long-term sustainability.

Our analysis of the survey, Back on track: The state of the nonprofit sector in metro Milwaukee, found that, by and large, the nonprofit sector has bounced back from the destabilizing effects of the Great Recession and is optimistic about future trends in organizational growth, charitable giving, and demand for services. The extent of this optimism varies by size and subsector, however, and the sector is not without short- and long-term concerns and challenges.

Highlights from the Public Policy Forum's 2016 survey of nonprofit leaders in Metro Milwaukee:

  • There is an enhanced sense of optimism about trends in charitable giving in the region. The share of respondents saying they feel the state of philanthropy is improving more than doubled since 2011.
  • Giving from individual donors is taking on increased prominence and importance. More than half of respondents say individual donors have increased over the past five years, and gifts from individual donors are anticipated to trend upward in the future.
  • The financial health of the nonprofit sector has improved when compared to five years ago. Only about a third of respondents say they have substantially reduced annual expenditures over the past five years, as compared to 60% in 2011.
  • Demand for nonprofit services continues to grow faster than charitable giving to meet that demand. Although close to three-quarters of the 2016 sample said that demand for their services was on the rise, only 42% of respondents thought that charitable giving was rising commensurate with that demand. That 42% response rate far exceeds the one quarter of respondents who felt that way in 2011, however.
  • The appetite for collaboration among nonprofit organizations is mixed. About two-thirds of respondents recently have considered programmatic collaboration, but only a third recently have explored collaboration for administrative functions, and even fewer (14%) have considered merging with another nonprofit.
  • Philanthropists should be prepared for an array of major fund development campaigns. Close to two-thirds of respondents currently are conducting or are planning a special fund development campaign outside of their annual fundraising.

Because the nonprofit sector is so central to quality of life in the region, we hope this analysis informs the work of a range of audiences. Individual donors and funding organizations may benefit from seeing how optimism about giving trends depends on an organization’s size or subsector. Funding institutions, in particular, may gain insight on the number and magnitude of fundraising campaigns on the horizon. And we hope both nonprofit and government leaders may be able to use these insights to craft strategies to align precious resources with efforts to strengthen both the sector's long-term sustainability and the vitality of the wider region. 

Anne Chapman