Local nonprofits value collaboration despite competitive sector

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Daily file photo by Evan Robinson-Johnson

A view of Evanston from above.

Eva Herscowitz, Reporter

For all your nonprofit needs, look no further than Evanston.

There’s Books & Breakfast, a before-school program that offers breakfast and homework assistance to Evanston students in need of additional support. The Center for Independent Futures aims to promote equal opportunity for people with disabilities, and Bundled Blessings partners with local social service organizations to supply diapers to families in need. For practically every social issue, from homelessness to substance abuse, there’s a passionate nonprofit hoping to provide solutions.

Evanston has a “vibrant” nonprofit sector, said Kellogg School Center for Nonprofit Management director Donald Haider. But local nonprofits’ abundance often forces them to compete, leaving those with overlapping missions vying for attention, resources and clients.

“Paradoxically, the not-for-profit sector is often called the collaborative sector, the partnering sector, the civil society,” Haider said. “But the truth is not-for-profits do compete. They compete for customers, and they compete for funding.”

Illinois’ roughly 60,000 nonprofit organizations employ about 578,000 people, or over 11 percent of the state’s workforce. A 2015 Nonprofit Finance Fund study found that 73 percent of Illinois nonprofits reported an increased demand for their services, but only 53 percent said they had the ​funding to meet that demand. Competition, which is compounded by the Trump administration’s reduction of annually appropriated grants, often requires nonprofits partner or merge, Haider said.

Jean Butzen, the president of Mission + Strategy Consulting, which facilitates nonprofit mergers, partnerships and affiliations, said the low cost of entering the sector makes for a competitive market.

“Just like if you go into the for-profit sector, you see lots and lots of plumbers out there,” she said. “The market’s really easy to get into.”

For nonprofits hoping to expand their services and intensify their impact in an abundant sector, partnerships may prove useful. Evanston Cradle to Career is a partnership of over 40 nonprofit, civic and faith-based organizations that intends to rectify inequities for low-income children and families of color. EC2C groups like-minded organizations into teams — from the Parent and Caregiver Empowerment Team to the Learning on Track Action Team — that pursue mutually reinforcing goals.

EC2C executive director Sheila Merry said the partnership has especially succeeded in advancing early childhood programs. Collaborating nonprofits conduct joint training and share referrals. As part of the new baby visit program, healthcare organizations and nonprofits, including Bundled Blessings, collaborate to ensure families receive a home visit a month after their baby’s birth.

“None of the organizations could do this on their own,” Merry said. “But together, they’re able to absorb the increased number of demands on their resources in order to provide this service. It’s only because of collaboration that we could make this happen.”

Bundled Blessings co-chair Sue Hagedorn said the nonprofit hasn’t competed with other organizations because few diaper pantries exist. Still, she said collaboration magnifies nonprofits’ voices in communities and makes residents aware of organizations’ common goals.

A successful merger — either when two or more nonprofit boards agree to dissolve and form a new organization or when one board votes to dissolve and transfer its assets to another organization — can reduce back office operations and administrative costs, Haider said. But attempting to pool the resources of two nonprofits with disparate missions may lead to an unsuccessful merger.

In the 2016 Report from the Metropolitan Chicago Nonprofit Merger Research Project, Haider, Katherine Cooper and Reyhaneh Maktoufi attempted to dispel the common belief that a merger represents a nonprofit’s failure to achieve its mission.

“There’s a negative connotation for mergers in the not-for-profit sector,” Haider said. “The merger is a tool and it can be used in a successful way to enable organizations to grow and to get more mission out of both organizations.”

Haider added that while mergers are one tool to increase a nonprofits’ effectiveness, they aren’t the only option. Although Bundled Blessings hasn’t merged with another nonprofit, Hagedorn said she appreciates the connections she’s forged with other EC2C partner organizations.

“Collaboration is always better than working alone,” Hagedorn said. “We do better when we do things together.”

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Twitter: @herscowitz

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