How Much Warning to Give Members Before Closing a Nonprofit?

Another news story came out this week about a nonprofit closing operations for lack of funding; in this case an Oakland charter elementary school called Civicorps. The headline in the Oakland Tribune, seemingly inevitably, said, “Families, teachers stunned by sudden closure of Oakland charter school.”

The members are always stunned, it seems. Just a couple of months back, a friend of mine was reeling at the announcement that a trails organization of which she was a loyal member had run out of money and was closing — and doing so almost immediately.

The decision to close a nonprofit is no doubt made after trying virtually everything, sounding alarm bells about the need for funds — hopefully without turning potential donors off by the persistent note of 0h-so-unattractive desperation — and finally giving up.

And yet. Civicorps parents and teachers told Tribune writer Katy Murphy that  “they could have saved the school if they had been given time to do so. ” My friend expressed something similar.

Where is the line between telling donors “We really need the funds, or else” and “This time we mean it?” Especially given that, once the decision to close is made, a group needs to wrap up operations fairly quickly. It may not have the cash reserves to do anything else, especially while winding down income-generating services and fundraising operations.

The lesson seems to be that, one way or another, key or loyal members need to hear that an ultimate decision on whether to close is being made. Whether they really can mobilize in time to save the ailing nonprofit is, of course, an open question.

But without an opportunity to try, and to assess the situation for themselves, member frustration, bad feeling, and very likely public statements about the incompetence of those running the nonprofit are a predicable result. (In the Oakland school instance, a teacher/parent said, “It’s just negligence, at a minimum”). And who knows, maybe they really will be able to save the nonprofit.