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Nonprofits making it happen

Kim Sharkey, Tracie Fletcher and Allison PeaseAspen, CO Colorado

Most of us would agree that communities full of richness and brimming with health are those whose members enjoy a vital life. But how do we achieve such vitality, and who makes it happen?Economic indicators, educational standards and intricate land-use plans are the stuff that statisticians and politicians often use to describe the health of our communities, but these can miss other, more human, contributions. Beyond the charts and graphs are organizations dedicated to expressing values, delivering services and improving our quality of life in human terms – our nonprofits.All nonprofits share common goals and challenges. Rooted in service, they often have missions more difficult to achieve than maximizing shareholder value. Yet, large or small, nonprofits affect and help us all.Nonprofits provide food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless and refuge for survivors of domestic violence. They build affordable housing, help people start new businesses and give voice to civic action. Our children attend 4-H clubs, go on nature hikes and watch Sesame Street on public television. We visit museums, attend parent-teacher organization meetings and take classes at community centers. Not a day goes by that we do not partake in a nonprofit’s offerings.Economically, nonprofits contributed almost 8 percent to the gross domestic product, provided 9.5 percent of the jobs and numbered more than 1 million in 2001. The combined assets of U.S. nonprofits make the sector the sixth largest economy in the world – larger than Brazil, Russia, Canada, Mexico and South Korea.Between 1997 and 2001, nonprofit employment grew at 2.5 percent and added more than 1 million jobs to the nation’s economy. In contrast, during the same period, business employment grew by 1.8 percent, while government employment grew at 1.6 percent. During the last 25 years, nonprofit employment doubled and now includes more than 12.5 million jobs.The impact to Colorado is phenomenal. By the end of 2005, nonprofits were contributing 5 percent to the gross state product, while reporting incomes of $19.3 billion and assets of $39.4 billion.These figures demonstrate just how critical nonprofits have become in meeting the needs of our communities; needs often unmet by government or business. Yet, while facing many of the same challenges as businesses – such as finding investors, hiring skilled employees and maintaining quality – small, community nonprofits must survive using fewer resources and satisfying two sets of customers: their donors and their clients.All the while, government funding and individual giving continue to decrease. Nonprofits are increasingly required to demonstrate effectiveness and accountability, yet most lack the necessary funding and tools to meet these requirements. Technology that could make nonprofits more efficient is expensive, and competition is increasing from for-profit companies hoping to provide similar services.With less money and more challenges, how can nonprofits survive and should they? The answer is in the nonprofit model.While businesses may have an easier time raising capital or funding technology initially, most eventually provide a return on investment to their investors. Too often, businesses become more about efficiency than service. On the other hand, nonprofits focus on raising money to support service-oriented missions.Nonprofits also build community in a way that government or business cannot. For example, people use nonprofits to publicly discuss issues or help a cause, while the small size of most nonprofits keeps staff and volunteers connected to the people they serve in ways too difficult for large governmental agencies or national businesses.Nonprofits create unparalleled opportunities for volunteerism and community involvement. They connect people, inspire giving and give voice to issues that affect us all. Volunteers spread a nonprofit’s mission, provide services and offer support to their communities far beyond the means of government or businesses.Lastly, nonprofits provide a forum for passionate people to share common goals and produce incredible results. Peter Drucker, recipient of the 2002 Presidential Medal of Freedom, said, “Virtually every important improvement in the quality of American life has roots in the nonprofit sector, from abolition of slavery, child labor and racial discrimination to advances in medicine, education and technology.”On June 4-6, more than 30 Front Range foundations and funders will be in Leadville to witness firsthand the contributions of our nonprofit organizations in Summit, Lake, Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties. Additionally, more than 250 representatives from local nonprofits will network and attend workshops to help further their missions.At this event, called Mountain Rural Philanthropy Days, nonprofits in our five-county region will answer the question posed at the beginning of this piece: How is community vitality achieved and who makes it happen?Your nonprofits do. Kim Sharkey and Tracie Fletcher are co-chairs of 2007 Mountain Rural Philanthropy Days. Sharkey is executive vice president of The Heuga Center for Multiple Sclerosis, and Fletcher is the executive director of Lake County Build a Generation. Allison Pease is executive director of Durango Nature Studies in Durango. Editor’s note: Soapbox runs weekly on the Sunday opinion page. This spot is a forum for residents to comment on local topics. If you’d like to contribute, contact Naomi Havlen at The Aspen Times at 925-3414, extension 17624 or e-mail nhavlen@aspentimes.com.


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