Nonprofits & Government

The major challenge facing a nonprofit organization taking over a government enterprise, as the American River Natural History Association (ARNHA) is doing with the Effie Yeaw Nature Center—unless the nonprofit has already demonstrated a capacity to raise the amount of funding needed—is transitioning to the type of organizational culture in which substantial fundraising from philanthropic sources is second-nature rather than an alien creature.

The situation with the Nature Center, as reported by the Sacramento Bee, while a good County strategy—and one we suggest they consider for the entire Parkway—brings with it several issues, the one about culture just mentioned, and those outlined in the Bee article.

I served a term as president of ARNHA several years ago, and I wish them the very best in their efforts.

An excerpt.

“If you take your kids to the Effie Yeaw Nature Center on July 4, you might not notice the difference. The trails will still wind to the river. Wild flowers and grasses will still grow. The deer and turkeys will still confer near the path’s edge.

“Invisible, however, will be the shift in control of the center and the 77-acre nature preserve from Sacramento County to the American River Natural History Association.

“County officials have billed the move as a success story – a last-minute stay of execution for the nature center from the budget ax, thanks to the creativity of county officials and the dedication of local volunteers. It’s part of a broader strategy to shift programs and services from local government to nonprofits.

“This spring, Volunteers of America took over the Mather Community Campus, which houses programs for the homeless, while the county handed off its Meals on Wheels program to the Asian Community Center.

“The approach appears to be unique to Sacramento County, a spokeswoman for the California State Association of Counties said, adding that she is unaware of any other counties making similar moves.

“The Effie Yeaw shift, however, is causing concern among some advocates who fear that the transfer is happening too quickly and that funding woes could be just as pronounced under a nonprofit as they have been under the county.

“There are people on our board who are saying, ‘What are we – suckers?’ ” said Greg Voelm, an American River Natural History Association member who is helping to finalize the deal with the county.

“The biggest concern for Voelm and others is the clean break the county is making from the center.

“Several local attractions have shifted from government control to nonprofits in recent years. The Sacramento Zoo and Fairytale Town are two notable examples.

“But in those cases, the city of Sacramento provided ongoing funding to help the nonprofits get up and running. Sacramento County won’t be giving anything to the association.

“At this point the only offer is, ‘Suck it up. We’re broke,’ ” Voelm said.

“This means the association – which has typically given $40,000 to $60,000 a year in donations to the county for Effie Yeaw – will suddenly need to find enough money to run the center, which the county has operated with a budget topping $600,000 a year.

“It puts a lot of weight on a little organization like ARNHA,” Voelm said. “It may be a bad tax year for the county, but we have no ability to collect anything. We have to rely on the kindness of others.”

“The association, along with other parks advocacy groups, has raised about $300,000 so far, Voelm added.”

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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