Europe’s nonprofit structure: The good, the bad, the stylish


The past few days have been intense, filled with 10 to 15 hours daily of meetings with government officials, local business leaders, education leaders, city planners, etc. The lunches and dinners are also packed with interesting stuff. In Copenhagen we toured the city by bicycle, learned about the port’s development while riding down the canal on a boat, talked with top officials of the Danish Parliment, got a briefing from an association of employers, had dinner with an industry leader in her office, toured and chatted with the publicly-financed radio and television station, rode the light rail and learned about its development, spent a night at a wine maker’s mansion and learned from him the challenges employers are facing with the inheritance tax and the high costs of hiring workers, toured a “ghetto” where many of the immigrants are living, and sat through a beautiful opera where I was struggling to stay awake after 12 hours information.

Each of those events would make a great blog post, if I had more time and weren’t so lazy. With everything being so fascinating, I didn’t think it was taking a toll on me, until one of the other fellows told me “Every morning, it looks like someone had broken into your hotel room and beat you.”

“Oh yeah?” I said by way of a comeback, “well your face looks like a smorrbro [the traditional Danish open-faced sandwich] that had gone bad.”

The above is only half the stuff we have been doing, though. Between meetings, I have been able to talk to the locals, interviewing the taxi drivers on their views of the welfare system, questioning waitresses on their thoughts on the education system and the European Union. Each of us fellows also get paired up for one-on-one meetings with local leaders around topics pertinent to our work back home. For me, those topics include immigrant integration, the nonprofit structure, the education system, and where to find good chocolate. I only have a couple of hours until our dinner meeting, so I’ll focus on the nonprofit structure and will explore the other topics, as well as how Europeans perceive us Americans, later.

The nonprofit structure, as we know it, does not really exist in Europe, as least not in Belgium and Denmark, where I’ve had a chance to explore. Or maybe it does, but not nearly to the same extent that we do in the US. I had dinner with an Executive Director of an umbrella organization that is trying to build capacity of the local groups here. Right away I could tell that there is a marked difference between our two countries, as “Laurent” looks young and healthy, even stylish, in contrast to us EDs in the US, who are worn, gaunt, beaten down by time and stress, our hair gray, our faces marked by crisscrossing wrinkles, the results of too many annual events and endless nights worrying about budget gaps and which staff we may need to lay off.

“Almost 100% of my funds come from the government, who set the money aside each year,” said Laurent, chewing on his gnocchi with pesto sauce at the modest Italian restaurant we were in, “so 90% of my time is spent working on improving programs.”

“90%!” I said, nearly spewing my Belgium Leffe Blond beer onto Laurent’s boyish face and fashionable scarf. “What…what about fundraising events?” I asked, “Do you ever do those?”

“Never,” he said, and I had to drink some more beer to keep from crying. The people here pay high taxes, which go to take care of basic needs of the public like food for the low-income, and healthcare and education for everyone. Individual donations are rare, as most people consider themselves already giving what they could to the greater good through their taxes. With the State taking care of so much, there are few nonprofits here, and those that exist seem to get dedicated funding set aside for them each year, allowing them to not worry too much about sustainability. They can focus on their work. In a way, this is a remarkable system.

On the other hand, there are plenty of weaknesses. The government cannot possibly take care of everything, leading to huge gaps in services and innovation. It has made me think of how ridiculously creative nonprofits are in the US, with programs to teach kids leadership through gardening or cooking or radio, to help seniors through art or dance, to build community through biking or neighborhood cleanups or whatever. These are things that seem to not be as prevalent in the two countries I’ve visited. Some of the gaps are vital services that have not risen to the level of national attention; for example, the plight of abused children in Denmark, who go unnoticed by the government and general public, as few nonprofits exist to amplify their voices.

Another weakness is who gets funded. If you get a slice of government pie for your organization, you’re pretty good. If you don’t, finding funding will be incredibly difficult, as individuals don’t give, and major corporations, also paying high taxes, do not feel an intrinsic obligation to give to local causes. “They give to the local football [soccer] team,” said Laurent, “because it is tangible. Everything else, they think the State should take care of it.”

It is especially challenging for the immigrant and refugee communities, whose unique and diverse cultural needs cannot possibly be handled by the government. These cultural associations have a hard time in the US, and doubly so in Belgium and Denmark and I would guess other countries in Europe. Most are volunteer-driven, falling under the umbrella of an organization like Laurent’s. And Laurent, an ED here, does not understand my point about the importance of funding these groups to move them out of the voluneer model and into a sustainable one with full-time staff and professional credibility. “If we fund them to hire full-time staff,” he said, “and the staff leave, they take with them all the connections to the community. Volunteer community leaders, however, usually stay, so there is sustainability.” This mimics the inefficient model we often see in the US, where nonprofits led by communities of color are deprofessionalized, paternalistically sheltered under the aegis of a “wiser and more sophisticated” umbrella organization that absorbs 95% of the funding while the smaller organizations do all the direct service work. Here it might actually be worse.

In Denmark, the social welfare system seems to be even stronger, which means nonprofits have even less of a presence. I talked to “Hannah,” a woman who is passionate about her work with abused kids and I was shocked to learn how little the government knows about and protects this vulnerable population. Hannah has been having a hard time finding funding for her work.

“People see me on the TV,” she said, “and they send flowers and chocolates, saying what a hero I am.”

“Flowers and chocolates?” I said, “you need money! Tell them to send you money and get their friends to send you money!” In my righteous zealousness, I started elaborating on the US nonprofit structure, with its ED and board and development director and program director and strategic plans and individual donors and stuff, concepts that are completely foreign here. Hannah’s eyes lit up. “Please,” she said, “email me about your American nonprofit structure. Maybe you should move over here and help me set this up!”

This is kind of a tempting prospect. Maersk, the Danish shipping company, just last week donated $200 million to the Danish education system. From what I hear, this is very generous, but the Danish education system is well funded by taxes. This gift from Maersk would be much better spent to close the cracks in the social welfare system, cracks that passionate people like Hannah are trying to tackle with very little experience and support.

Despite all the flaws of our nonprofit structure in the US, a structure that ages and burns us staff out and makes us resemble beat-up leather shoes, it nonetheless has some great stuff going on. We are more creative, honing our programs to target specific needs of our clients. Our donors and corporations feel more of a sense of duty to help strengthen our community.

Still, we can learn a whole bunch of stuff from Europe, too. I would love it if funding were as stable so that we can spend more time—90%!–on actually improving our services instead of trying to keep our organizations surviving for one more year.

I’ll be thinking more about these things as I visit the other European countries. I just arrived in Lisbon today and will be observing Portugal’s various systems. Will write more later. There is a lot to think about.

  • Vu, this is fascinating. Thanks for taking the time to share the highs and lows of your time over there. Keep eating that chocolate! It’s a great stress reliever, I find, coupled with peanut butter.

    • Vu

      Thanks, Elizabeth. This fellowship is so amazing. It’s like a graduate-level course in comparative systems. My brain hurts from so much thinking. Plus the beer…

  • Clearly flowers and chocolates for nonprofit staff should be included in US grant applications as vital general operating support. The Europeans are on to something.

    • Vu

      Elizabeth, I agree. Beer also makes great donations.

  • Sara Levin

    Vu – fantastic post. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the trip. I remember well the 15-hr days but the amazing energy that comes from all that you’re learning. Keep the insights coming!

    • Vu

      Thanks, Sara. There is so much to think about. My head really hurts, though I think it might just be from the wine I drank for lunch (look, if they can do it in Europe…)