As the state continues its steady economic recovery, Nevada’s non-profit organizations have gotten creative in order to fulfill their mission. Collaborative efforts move forward making industry leaders optimistic about the coming years. Executives representing several non-profits throughout the state recently met at the Las Vegas offices of City National Bank to discuss the future of the non-profit sector.
Tarah Richardson, managing editor of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for the event. These monthly meetings are designed to bring leaders together to discuss issues pertinent to their industries. Following is a condensed version of the roundtable discussion.
What is the biggest challenge facing the non-profit sector?
Caroline Ciocca: Our biggest challenge is recruiting talent and volunteers, paid and unpaid.
Brian Knudsen: A huge challenge [we have] is trying to explain and bring about awareness in the community about the connection between poverty and educational outcomes. [We need to] really help people understand how poverty impacts kids in our community.
Karen Barsell: The biggest challenge we’ll be facing in Northern Nevada is a growth spurt. How do we get revved up for that growth? I don’t know if we have all the money in place to prepare for it.
Caitlin Shea: Our biggest challenge is getting that community connection and allowing people to engage on these projects.
Brian Burton: Recruiting development professionals is extraordinarily challenging in this community. There’s such a small number of experienced people in relation to the need, which will only be growing. In terms of hunger, a challenge we’re going to face with the rising economy, growth and lower unemployment is fighting the perception that hunger is not a problem, that we’ve got that figured out. We still have one out of six people in Southern Nevada that struggle with where their next meal is coming from.
Myesha Wilson: Funding is our greatest challenge, especially when we’re going up against agencies that are better known in the community or serve more people than we do. It becomes a really big challenge for us especially when we’re a cash-based organization.
How healthy are non-profits?
Cass Palmer: They’re struggling. The last five or six years have really put a drain on their financial resources. The donations are flat on average but the demand for services is way up.
Molly Latham: One opportunity that came out of the economic crisis is, if you had to shave back on quantity, it allowed you to focus on quality. My agency really honed in on being able to demonstrate our impact. It’s important to remember the lessons that we learned and keep employing those good skills we learned.
Burton: Many of the small business owners tell me their business got wiped out during the recession, but they’re starting to see more activity so they can start to donate a little bit again. It’s going to continue to challenge all of us to maximize our operations and prove our effectiveness and impact to the donor community. It’s also going to require more people participating. We can’t just have a leadership circle of 200 people in Las Vegas; we need thousands.
What types of collaborative efforts are being made?
Shea: Our bottom line relies on collaborative efforts with building facilities and with the outreach programs. It’s a great way for us to continue to grow together because the growth happens when people are working in tandem on different issues.
Palmer: If non-profits are not collaborating, then they’ll go out of existence. That’s what we’ve seen in the last few years. Non-profit CEOs have gotten together to ensure we’re not duplicating operational ideas. The collaboration idea is alive and well and existing and growing.
Knudsen: We have a new partnership called Nevada HAND, which is a non-profit property developer. They opened up their community centers for us to operate out of. It saves them money so they don’t have to pay for someone to operate a community center, and we just put our program into it. It allows us to focus on really good programming instead of maintaining a building. The more we can push our programming into schools and into other existing buildings, the more it benefits both parties.
Paul Stowell: If we don’t see the collaborative efforts between non-profits, we pull back. We want some accountability and if we can’t get some accountability to what our dollars are helping support and fund, then we have to rethink that. If non-profits will continue to look at collaboration as job one, then the corporate funders will be more willing to step up.
Julie Murray: As more and more non-profits are collaborating, the trust factor increases, which is what it takes for true collaboration to occur.
Ciocca: Another important thing to look at with non-profits is the turnover. When you’re building relationships and collaborating and then someone leaves that organization, you’re essentially restarting that partnership. That’s something that needs to be looked at. How do you keep people in the non-profit sector and at your organization?
How important is transparency for non-profits?
Wilson: It’s important especially when you solely rely on donations. If a donor says to only buy socks with their $5,000, it’s the only thing that you do. It’s really important to maintain that transparency so that relationship can continue on.
Tom McCoy: In this day and age, when I can go online and check just about anybody’s percentage and admin costs, etc., transparency exists whether you like it or not. Most of our national organizations and certainly some local organizations have had to look at that because donors, be they a large banking situation or individuals, want to see where their money goes and where it’s going to be used.
Ciocca: Your donors can be a part of your solutions. To be fearful of sharing an issue with a donor, you could be leaving a solution on the table. They truly can collaborate with you and see things from a different perspective and may have resources you never thought they would be able to access.
Palmer: Transparency is good business, but at the same time it’s expensive business. Accreditation is 23 steps and it’s time consuming for individual entities to go through it. At the end of the day, there are hard dollars you have to spend for transparency. Transparency is proper, but at some point and time, those dollars going into the transparency process should be going towards programming. You have to have a standard transparency number. Everyone tries to calculate numbers differently. You have to have a common accountability for the non-profit world.
What Methods do you use to encourage funding?
McCoy: What we’ve learned is you really need to be thinking about those investments donors are making with you. In making that investment, they expect something back. This is a changed environment, at least from my perspective. We, as non-profits, have to prove our worth.
Latham: You can help a donor understand what is the impact of their investment: how will their investment in an agency change the graduation rate, or the likelihood of this child graduating high school and attending college? What is the ROI of that investment and to the community at large?
Murray: Quarterly, there’s a Nevada Corporate Giving council that meets with dozens of corporate funders. They’re talking about the non-profit agencies, their great investments and ROIs. So you have a group of corporate funders collaborating quarterly and then you also see the family foundations meeting quarterly and doing the same thing. They’re sharing good experiences that they have with you and, in some circumstances, pooling their resources when one gets particularly excited about it. There are proactive efforts to get people excited about giving and we all need to be proactive about that. It’s up to us to tell stories.
Latham: For business owners growth means new people coming into town as they’re recruiting that talent. A great thing to do from a human resources standpoint is to recommend to those new employees to get involved with the community.
Ciocca: It’s important for us to not just focus on the top executives, but getting involved with employees and building a base within the organization. That will just become part of the culture if you’ve got the right champion inside of the company, and it’s not always the CEO or the top executive. We’ve found that to be very important in our volunteerism and it has a snowball effect.
Stowell: Most of these executives have been there done that, year after year. Maybe they’re getting a little worn down but they can still be the sponsor and face at an event. It’s getting the new and young blood involved, and having them take ownership so they can step into that leadership role.
Shea: The tangible experience of delivering bags of food or doing those events collaboratively with companies is what helps us in the long run with the funding. If you can first present them with the feeling of being a part of it, the money and storytelling becomes real for them.
Burton: We need to continue broadening the diversity and scope of individual donors so that we’re not relying on just a few foundations or a few corporations, as generous as they are. We all have to do a better job of engaging small and medium sized donors, and thousands of them, because a lot of them want to get involved but they don’t know how.
How important is your board of directors?
Murray: One of the single most important things a non-profit can do is to have a rock solid board of directors because it’s all about the leadership.
Knudsen: We merged Las Vegas and Henderson Boys and Girls Clubs to put more money back into programming, but the execution of that allowed for a 60-member board. We have an active board, but to meet the expectations of 60 people is also really difficult. We’re trying to figure out how do we keep that group of 60 people engaged and inspired and motivated and giving financially.
Shea: I’m a team of one, with no staff underneath me. Wearing 12 hats a day can be really fun but also really stressful. My board has driven the volunteer initiatives and starting the dialogues to get them engaged.
Burton: We’ll sometimes spend two years vetting a new board member because we are as careful recruiting that person as you would a CEO. That is the long-term sustainability of our organizations. Show me strong non-profits, I’m going to find a strong board.
Stowell: The one thing I have always said to a non-profit organization is if I can’t be an engaged and actively involved board member, I’m not going to participate. I’m not using this as a resume builder, I’m using this as a way to benefit and help the community.
Latham: I will take a young, upcoming professional who’s been an engaged volunteer for two years and works for a company that gives back to the community any day. I’ll take that enthusiasm and passionate drive and welcome it.
What does the future of non-profit organizations look like?
Ciocca: It will look better. The conversation is definitely changing and we’re thinking more strategically and talking about the same issues that a for-profit company is talking about. We’re talking about employee retention and revenue generation. If we continue to share ideas on both sides of the sector then we’re going to be a lot better. We’re going to continue to grow and be stronger.
Barsell: The trust level among us is growing. As we keep coming back and getting to know each other better and fulfilling the promises that we make to each other, I expect that the non-profit sector is going to be abundant in 2015 and going forward.
Murray: The future looks very bright for both non-profits and for funders. During the recession, everybody had to rethink how they were operating as a non-profit or a funder and drive more efficiency or get higher impact for fewer dollars. Now as we’re coming out of the recession, there’s so much efficiency and collaboration and private/public partnerships.
Burton: Our community faces some deeply entrenched challenges that are not readily apparent. Our state is broke. We all thought we’d be able to go there and restore some of that funding to the non-profits. Whatever legislator I talked to said nothing is going to happen except cutting more. We can’t continue doing business this way as a state. The silver lining of this recession is that we are talking to each other more. Those hardened silos that don’t want to cooperate will be marginalized. They are not the future; they are the past.