Non-profits in Nevada are facing a myriad of challenges from finding qualified staff and volunteers to changes to the federal tax code. Recently, executives for Nevada non-profits met at the Las Vegas offices of City National Bank to discuss these and other issues facing their industry.
Connie Brennan, publisher and CEO of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for this event. These monthly roundtables are designed to bring together leaders to discuss issues relevant to their industries. Following is a condensed version of the roundtable discussion.
How big of an issue today is funding for non-profits?
Myesha Wilson: Our biggest challenge in Nevada is definitely funding. We are, in general, funded through our government, which sometimes can provide a little bit of “mission drift” for our organization because of the hot topics. If it’s a hot topic, we’ll likely get funded. If it’s not, then we have to rely on our donors.
Cami Lewis: Our biggest challenge is also funding.
Denise Tanata: One of the biggest issues that we see right now is what’s happening at the federal level. Nevada, as a state, and the organizations within our state are very heavily reliant on federal funding. The risk that we’re seeing now, not only with the tax plan but with budget cuts, affects essential safety net programs that we rely on and could have a devastating impact on our state and on our community.
Liz Ortenburger: I’m incredibly concerned about the federal cycles of funding that come up next year and the lack of seriousness that seems to hold in the current administration’s lens. The biggest concern facing non-profits is the tax code as it’s working its way through the federal landscape and what that impact might have on charitable giving.
Tom McCoy: Talking about tax deduction, we don’t want to see that [go away]. But, I think it is a good wake up call for every non-profit to ask if they are relevant. If that deduction goes away, are you still going to have donors come to you and say, “Here, I want to help.” If not, then maybe you need to take a look at how relevant you are to them.
Is it the government’s responsibility to fund non-profits?
Caroline Ciocca: You shouldn’t have all your eggs in one basket. We don’t get any federal money, so I speak just from my experience. [Federal dollars are] very unstable. I went through an experience where they wanted us to change our program to get the money and I turned down over $100,000 because in our expertise, it wasn’t the right place to be, just to appease a government mandate or check the box. Then they came back to us because they needed us to pass that money through. They need the non-profit sector to be able to distribute the resources to services. Even if you’re privately funded, if all of your funding comes from the corporate sector, it’s one loss of a donor that can throw your entire organization into a tizzy. It’s the same with having the one big donor that is carrying all the weight for you and they decide one day they don’t want to be there.
Dr. Tiffany Tyler: If government is about insuring the health of our citizens, then there’s a role that government can play. I don’t think we should ever be overly dependent on any particular stakeholder group. While we’ve had the benefit, as a society, of leveraging government funding over the last however many decades, as we elevate the discussion around what the return is, we should expect that folks are going to shift the way that they’re using resources.
What are donors looking for in non-profits today?
Mark Brown: We have a responsibility to help our donors achieve their goals. I think we have a core competency of our mission. But the other core competency, and I’m going to work to develop this next year, is really become a media organization, to be able to take advantage of the shifting world out there, to stay relevant. Stories sell. We have incredible stories. We need to do a really good job, a much better job, of telling those stories, not only about our families and the successes, but also how your contribution helped us.
Ciocca: Donors are more sophisticated. They want to know impact. They want to know where you’re going. How are you going to solve the domestic violence issue? People give to people. There’s amazing causes all over. Everything says Make-A-Wish should be so easy. Well, not if the donor really cares about education. They’re sorry the kids are sick, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to put their money there if it’s not what they’re passionate about. It doesn’t make them a bad person, they just have priorities. They may have other interests. We have to get better about building the relationships. We go to donors and meet them one time and ask them for $50,000. How does that work? It’s not the right system. It takes times, but when you’re in a pressure cooker and you’re trying to raise money and you’re almost hand to mouth, then you’re not going to have the patience to cultivate a relationship for two years to get the gift that you want.
Ortenburger: Questions about outcomes, what we are seeing and how we are truly ending domestic violence; those are the questions a donor should ask that are really relevant to whether or not the services I provide are good. I don’t hear that here, but I certainly have heard that in other markets. I think it’s coming. I think what we lack here is a non-profit education stream for donors and for board members to raise our non-profit acumen.
How does measuring outcomes help non-profits?
Paul Stowell: In terms of our maturity, we have to start incorporating analytics to really measure where we are and where we’re going and how we can eradicate, for example, hunger. Someone said eradicating hunger in this community, or any community, is probably going to be the greatest challenge because of the continual influx of people moving here and who we’re attracting coming to this town. Can we use analytics to raise the quality of donor base in this community?
Tanata: What I have seen as a researcher over many years is that a lot of our non-profit programs, particularly the smaller ones, do not have evaluations. They don’t keep metrics. They will keep file drawers full of tons of data and tons of information, but it’s not used in a meaningful way. Part of that goes back to the funding. We are not funding evaluation and we’re not funding appropriate data collection. I am seeing a shift in our philanthropic community of them coming together a little bit more, receiving consultation from groups about how they most effectively use the dollars that they have for the greatest impact. We have a long way to go in that realm. If we’re going to have the greatest impact, there has to be a requirement for not just outputs, but outcomes, that are aligned to more of that star target. And that has to be funded.
Tyler: As an organization that has had the benefit of analytics for over two decades now, I can tell you that, as it relates to building our capacity, we really need to attend to this notion of how we build the capacity of every stakeholder. I can tell you what my graduation rates are, what attendance or behavior or course performance is. Unless I’m saying to the folks that actually do the work, “Let me tell you what happened when you put interventions two through four together and how it got us closer to the result,” we could do five all day long and never see anything move. Unless we’re having those conversations as a community, anything that we do will be ill-sustained as a part of that work.
How do you work to evolve your organizations?
McCoy: I identify this as our challenge, but I think it’s a challenge for others as well as I listen around the table, and that’s relevancy. Are you relevant in this community in 2018? Are you relevant with your core root? We’ve had to take a hard look at what we’re doing with our programs. The goal of the events is to raise money. We do Relay for Life, Making Strides Against Breast Cancer and quite a few others. We’re finding that some of these just don’t make sense anymore for raising money. Obviously we have to [raise money] to provide the programs we provide. Relevancy, to me, is a major challenge.
Brown: I spend a lot of time trying to educate our various donor bases, both locally and nationally, that we’re businesses. Even though we’re non-profits, we’re businesses. Retaining people, recruiting good staff, you have to be competitive in this day and age to stay relevant. You expect accountability from the non-profits that you support and donors rightfully expect that and demand that. But I think in order to stay relevant, you have to change with the times. A lot of times that means spending money in ways that previously you didn’t have to.
Ciocca: We spend a lot of time educating the medical community and the community at large. It does become a barrier for referrals and also for donors for people to get involved with us because they think it’s too sad and too difficult to work with our mission. If our businesses are not successful, then we’re not going to get money. If we’re not successful, then our community hurts. The government can’t take care of everything.
How Do non-profits collaborate with each other and the community?
Stowell: I have been involved in the community from a philanthropic standpoint for the past 32 years. I’ve served on a number of boards and I’ve seen this community, from a philanthropic side, from all different angles. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. This community is in one of the best spots it’s ever been in from a philanthropic standpoint and the collaboration between non-profits as well as for-profit.
Lewis: [We are challenged with] finding ways to collaborate with other agencies that serve a similar demographic so we can help folks get skills to be able to go out and get careers.
Robyn Caspersen: I believe the biggest challenge is collaboration. Sources are finite, funding is finite, personnel is finite, specialists are finite but data is not. We have a tremendous amount of data that tells us our community is hurting in many areas. I believe our biggest challenge is finding common ground for us to work together. We are stronger together. We have common language. We often look at the same indicators. We need to be smarter about how we invest our finite resources.
Tanata: Collaboration has always been an issue in this state and I think it continues to be, although I’ve seen a lot of improvements over the past 20 years that I’ve been doing this work.
Tyler: What comes to mind for me is the need to understand the impact of the evolving context of our work. That includes the national funding discussion or the need for collaboration. Even the discussion around how we come to a shared understanding, not only of what the needs are, but a shared understanding of a theory of action. This allows us to work together. While there hasn’t been an opportunity to establish that cross agency effort, I am encouraged by the fact that the notion of collective impact or that level of collaboration began a few years ago in our community. We’re collaborating because we’re in the same households whether or not we’re communicating together. Whether or not we adopt the philosophy or the practices associated with [collaboration] we’re oftentimes dealing with complex issues that are interdependent. We’re collaborating whether or not we’re doing it well or doing it intentionally.
Is finding and retaining talent an issue in this industry?
Wilson: We are in a transient city and funders don’t want to fund companies that have a lot of turnover and that’s kind of inevitable in our organizations.
Ciocca: I think our biggest challenge is talent. It’s talent that is professional, the talent that we pay, but it’s also volunteer talent. We’re forced to use volunteers which makes our business very vulnerable because people are busy. If something happens, non-profit work is the first to go. It makes it very challenging to operate when you may or may not get the volunteer talent to show up. Everybody has the right intention, but we’re a very busy society. Make-A-Wish is very reliant on volunteers to execute our mission. We send volunteers out to meet with our kids and they discover the wish. We put a lot of trust into a volunteer team, which goes back to the cost of managing and training and educating volunteers. You can’t do that on a dime. You must have paid staff to manage and lead them, train them. It’s this vicious circle. Talent is something we really need to be able to recruit really good people. If you’re going to pay someone a coordinator’s salary but you want them to be a CEO, it just doesn’t work. You get what you pay for.
Tyler: As it relates to how we build professionals in this work or attract more professionals, we can’t divorce that from all the other discussions we’re having in the community. [Those discussions] include how we diversify our economic development and how we improve our educational system. Ultimately those high-quality professionals don’t come to communities without doing some assessment that includes all those things. We talk about these issues as if they are independent and they really are not. They’re really interdependent.