Are there too many nonprofits in Austin?

Does Austin have too many nonprofits? I’m working on this story for the next issue, but in the meantime I thought I’d get my initial ideas down. Gotta start somewhere….

The reason I ask is that I hear frustration from some people over how difficult it can be to decide which nonprofits to support. And it’s not just from people new to philanthropy; I hear this from seasoned foundation board members, too, who are well aware of the nonprofit landscape in Central Texas.

The problem is not that there are too many organizations that want to help people in need, of course. That could never be a problem. The problems that can arise, some say,  from there being too many nonprofits that support the same cause include some of the following:

1. Redundancies that lead to inefficiencies. If there are three groups aiming to help at-risk African-American young men in Austin and they each operate similar programs, you start to wonder if they should team up and make more out each other’s resources.
2. Confusion among givers and volunteers. How do you choose which to support? What’s the difference among them?
3. The possibility of being a burden to donors. Is it possible for donors to spread their largess too thin? This wouldn’t be a problem if the number of donors kept up with the number of nonprofits, but – surprise – they don’t in Austin … yet.
4. Donors supporting nonprofits that simply shouldn’t be in the market. If they’re small they may not be able to maintain their programs, grow with the need their serving, or even sustain themselves in order to truly have an impact. This can be an issue for nonprofits that are poorly run, too. A nonprofit that should exist may get the donation that would have been better used somewhere else.

In this article on the blog Philantopic, the author points out that too many nonprofits isn’t the problem; the problem is that there’s…

a. not enough money
b. not enough support for grassroots nonprofits to succeed
c. not enough civic engagement on the part of nonprofit supporters
d. not enough support for collaborations among nonprofits

Let’s take an example
Let’s say you decide to support an organization that helps children, and you’re ready to narrow that down a bit. A good place to start would be the I Live Here, I Give Here campaign website, which lists dozens of local Austin-area nonprofits in 14 categories. In the “Child & Youth Services” category, the site lists 49 nonprofits. Kind of a large number, so let’s whittle that category down to those nonprofits that help at-risk youth. That brings the number of nonprofits down to 19, which is mangeable but still worth whacking at.

So let’s say you have decided to support programs for at-risk youth through education. Here are your seven choices, as listed on I Live Here, I Give Here:

Austin Voices for Education & Youth
Austin Voices for Education and Youth mobilizes the community to strengthen schools and expand opportunities for Austin’s youth. We work alongside community members, young people, parents, and educators to improve our schools and neighborhoods.

Austin YMBL Sunshine Camps
We provide children of Austin and surrounding areas with opportunities for personal development, skills necessary to succeed in school and life, and hope for a better future. We strive to eliminate the high school dropout rate and increase college participation. Our three programs, Summer camps, Sunrise Challenge and Leadership Programs, include scholarship opportunities.

Communities In Schools—Central Texas
Our mission is to help kids stay in school and prepare for life. Children cannot learn at their potential when they are in crisis or face significant non-academic needs. We help them address these needs and provide tools to help them grow into successful adults.

Hungry For God Home For Young Men
Redirecting the lives of fatherless young men, ages 17-24. We provide for basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter, plus Life Skills Training, Completion of Education and Employment. Whether battling with homelessness, addiction or being an ex-offender, we want to help young men to become fathers and men of responsibility.

Seedling Foundation
The Seedling Foundation supports public schools by encouraging and facilitating community involvement. Major program areas include a school-based mentoring program, which matches children of incarcerated parents with caring adults in the Austin area public schools, and campus beautification projects on public school campuses.

Shoes for Austin
Shoes for Austin provides disadvantaged children with new athletic shoes as a reward for achieving educational and self-improvement goals. Shoes are awarded to children who improve school grades, learn about health and wellness, and improve reading skills. Shoes for Austin has donated more than 55,000 pairs of shoes since 2000.

Southwest Key Programs
Southwest Key Programs is a 20-year-old, Austin-based nonprofit organization which runs programs for youth involved in the juvenile justice system, and shelters for unaccompanied immigrant minors. With over 45 programs in seven states across the nation, Southwest Key’s 900 employees positively impact the lives of thousands of individuals each day.

That’s seven nonprofits that help at-risk Austin youth through education – this is a reasonable number to sift through, right? And the fact is that no matter which you decide to support, chances are you’re going to make a difference in the community.

So maybe that’s the key: It’s not that there are too many nonprofits in Austin; rather it’s that there’s not enough information in Austin to help you sift through all the nonprofits. I Live Here, I Give Here certainly helps, but the fact is the site doesn’t actually list all the nonprofits in Central Texas that address at-risk youth through education. 

Yes, there are probably more than seven. Do we really need all seven of these nonprofits listed above? I would argue yes; each of them serves a very specific audience with a very specific program. Here are some other possibilities to ponder….

1. Maybe nonprofits, donations, and volunteers shouldn’t be measured on “efficiencies”; this is a business metric that may not have a place in charity.

2. So what if it takes donors a little work to sift through all the giving options? Is it really such a “burden” to have to shop nonprofits to find the one whose mission aligns with your own?

3. Finally, what about those nonprofits that receive donations but actually shouldn’t exist in the first place? The saying, “A fool and his money are soon parted,” comes to mind. Donors and volunteers have a responsibility to the needy to perform their due diligence on nonprofits, and these days that’s not very difficult.

I suggest you spend as much time choosing a nonprofit to support as you would choosing a purchase of similar cost. Want to donate $5000? How much time would you spend researching flat-screen TVs at the price? You’re the consumer; it’s your responsibility… your privilege… to be able to choose a cause and nonprofit to support.

…Now as to which nonprofits to volunteer with… that’s another story. Let’s face it, there are good and bad volunteer experiences, and big-name nonprofits don’t necessarily ensure a good experience for the volunteer. If you’re frustrated with a particular nonprofit, especially after a bad experience, most nonprofit experts will urge you to think twice about starting your own nonprofit. Instead, keep looking. Visit Hands On Central Texas, ask around with other volunteers, and above all, keep trying. It’s hard to find that perfect fit, but once you do, the satisfaction and personal growth you receive for your effort will make it well worth it.

One Response

  1. Great post! We are committed to help Central Texans find their passion and give. While every Central Texas agency is not listed on our website, we feel that we provide a starting place for those who wish to begin their philanthropic journey, or continue one that has already begun. The non-profits that are registered on our site have provided the following information:

    Confirmation that they are a 501(c)3 organization or sponsored by a 501(c)3 organization

    Their tax ID number

    Reporting on aggregate receipts from individual donors pre- and post-campaign

    Reporting on staff attendance at or commitment to attend learning opportunities focused on individual donor stewardship

    We are so proud of the organizations that have registered with us, and feel so lucky to live in a city that benefits from their great work.

    Agencies that would like to register with us are invited to visit the following link:

    By finding out more information about the issues that affect Central Texas, your dollars can mean more than just writing a check. When you find an issue that you feel passionate about, it is the beginning of a journey that can make a true difference in your life, and the lives of your neighbors.

    On the fourth Monday of each month, I Live Here, I Give Here will shine a light on an issue that effects Central Texans by holding a panel discussion series. Panel participants will include experts on the issue–agencies that provide services–and the recipients of those services. Following the panel, we invite you to enjoy a free drink at a local bar or restaurant and have the opportunity to continue the discussion of the issues with other community minded Austinites.

    For more information please visit our website.

    Thanks for the great post, and keep up the good work!

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