The recent news of Minnesota’s Crisis Connection closing due to shortfalls in funding is a powerful case study in the financial and strategic issues that face nonprofits.

And it raises a gigantic, thorny question: What is the balance between serving the common good and the financial realities of nonprofits?

The question is made even more difficult by the question of mission and the common good. Crisis Connection is an absolute common good, there’s no doubt about it. A well-staffed, well-publicized crisis hotline is a good thing. But that doesn’t answer the question of who pays for it.

Nonprofit leaders have to make decisions for their organizations that, to the outside, might look selfish—cutting programs that serve real needs. It’s the hardest part of the decision-making process, but one of the most important. It involves truly understanding what it costs to do the work, and choosing among programs with the understanding that you can’t do everything.

And at what point is it too expensive for you to serve one aspect of the commons? And who pays for the commons? These are the huge, global issues that make up the terrain where non-profits live all the time. And every single one of them will grapple with the question: where does their obligation end? And, ultimately, who picks up the check for the collective needs of the people.

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