By Don Keelan
Ever since the stay at home mandate was issued and tens of thousands of Vermonters were laid off, countless news stories have been written about what the financial impact has been on Vermonters. The same holds true for small businesses, hospitals, medical offices, town governments, and for Vermont’s nonprofit community.
It is the latter that I wish to focus on. It is not known what the economic impact has been or will be on nonprofits, but it has to be awful. There are about 4,500 nonprofit organizations in Vermont, ranging in size from $50,000 in annual revenue upwards to hundreds of millions. The sector employs close to 20% of the state’s workforce and has, by some estimates, over a $6 billion impact on the state’s economy.
As a sector, the nonprofit world has been hit even more so than any other. It has had to shut down its facilities and cancel planned programs and events that historically were at the heart of their annual revenue receiving schemes. And if that wasn’t bad enough, another major source of funding, annual donations, has been seriously curtailed. The latter has a lot to do with so many Vermonters out of work, the downturn in the stock markets, and of course the uncertainty as to when the country will get back to normalcy.
However, maybe there is a positive that can be realized from the existing crisis. Maybe nonprofits should use this time to seriously evaluate whether it is time to think of merging, affiliating, or even consolidating with other area or regional nonprofits.
Since 2003, the beginning of my writing a bi-weekly column, I have brought up the above on at least four occasions as part of a series of over 75 columns pertaining to the nonprofit sector. The underlying reasons at the time were that there were just too many doing the same thing; petitioning the same donors, volunteers, and public for attention. My appeal went unheard even after 911, the 2008 financial crash, and in 2011, Tropical Storm Irene. The nonprofits were able to squeak by and survive. This may not be the case today.
I am not unmindful of the passion, emotion, energy, and history that prevails among those who have dedicated so much to maintain their cherished nonprofit. It makes no difference if that treasured organization is a museum or historical center, a food pantry or a recreational facility, an art gallery or a theater for the performing arts — to so many they are special.
But now the mission is to survive and to do so, the thinking has to be objective and not the heretofore, we will just cut costs and plod along.
The way to do this is for board members and executive directors not to perceive that they are operating from weakness. By no means should this be the case. They are operating from a position of common sense and reality and the time is now.
Organizations with similar missions should begin the narrative. For example, this could consist of the many nonprofits whose mission it is to feed the area’s population that are food insecure.
To a large degree, historic centers and museums also have similar missions and should also be in discussion — if just to think about affiliating by not duplicating marketing, fundraising, accounting, and purchasing.
What is happening in our schools under Act 46 should prompt the nonprofit environment to take up the subject of merging. I ask, what if the seven Vermont colleges that have recently closed had discussed merging or affiliating? Would some form of their mission still be in existence today?
Another question that might be asked is, if we had to start with a clean slate, meaning there are no nonprofits, would we have created 4,500 to carry out their current missions?
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.