Co-op model could transform nonprofit sector

Pooling resources through a cooperative to promote and support businesses has become a standard in many industries, from growing cranberries and oranges to selling flooring.Now the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits is creating what it calls a “resource platform” for other nonprofit organizations to use and share information and resources collaboratively.Those behind the innovative effort say a single resource for nonprofits does not exist anywhere else in the country and could transform the way such organizations work in New Hampshire and beyond.Ellen Koenig, a longtime Nonprofits Center executive and the project’s director, called the resource platform the “brainchild” of Howard Brodsky, owner of Manchester-based CCA Global Partners, a $10 billion international retailing cooperative and one of the largest privately owned companies in the country.Brodsky spent years connecting the thousands of co-op partners in his conglomerate – enterprises that range from carpet stores to lighting to performance bicycles – by leveraging the economies of scale: the more you have of something, the more costs can be spread and lowered per individual unit and the more resources can be shared.Through this co-op concept, CCA Global delivers to its network members resources for training, human resources and marketing , among others.The liaison with the nonprofit sector began in 2007 when The Aspen Institute and The Annie E. Casey Foundation approached Brodsky and CCA Global’s mission-supporting arm, CCA for Social Good, with the idea that such a co-op might work with charitable organizations.”Until then, we never really thought about it,” said Brodsky.The project developed a platform similar to that being used for CCA Global businesses, but this time it was for some 2,000 volunteer tax professionals who prepared income taxes for those looking to obtain Earned Income Tax Credits.That project was so successful – improving efficiency by 68 percent, said Brodsky – that a Colorado foundation approached CCA Global about applying the concept to nonprofit child-care organizations.”Child care is highly complex and is in such a high need. It has a lot of regulation and high turnover,” said Brodsky. “The platform we developed included training, regulations, marketing, even newsletters.”Launched in 2010, the child-care platform today is being used by more than 600 centers across the country, with that number expected to grow into the thousands by 2012, said Brodsky.On the ‘cutting edge’Shortly afterwards, the Center for Nonprofits and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation approached CCA for Social Good, suggesting that such a platform could be used by any nonprofit, regardless of mission.Brodsky likened nonprofits to cottage businesses – the organizations and leadership are so focused on mission that simple mergers between disparate organizations could never be maintained.”With back-to-back recessions, community needs are greater than ever, but resources are less than ever,” said Brodsky. “With the platform, we wanted to find a way how we could maintain that local focus while realizing the benefits of economies of scale.”That need to pool resources and improve efficiencies among nonprofits was a clear directive to building the platform, said Katie Merrow, vice president for programming at the Charitable Foundation, a key supporter and funder of the project.”We need new models to share resources and to share efficiencies,” said Merrow. “New Hampshire is really on the cutting edge with this tool.”Taking the lead, the Charitable Foundation provided $100,000 in seed money to begin the project.”We were an early partner and worked closely with CCA Global on how we could launch this idea here in New Hampshire and not elsewhere to capitalize on all that would bring the state,” said Merrow.Brodsky said both his company’s and his own roots are in New Hampshire, so the Granite State was a natural fit for the launch of a broader platform.”We are local here; we have connections here. We wanted to start the program here,” said Brodsky.Platform resourcesTechnology developers at CCA for Social Good are the actual architects of the platform, basing its construction on existing Web application used by CCA’s myriad of member companies.The resource platform, currently in its earliest stages of development, will be an online information bank of sorts, consisting of four basic components – cost savings, human resources, financials and marketing.For example, said Koenig, a single organization might not have much bargaining power, but many together could cut credit card processing fees in half, all by joining together through the platform.In fact, one local nonprofit did save $15,000 in credit card processing fees, said Brodsky, as an early specific illustration of the power of collective bargaining.Time savings also will be a hallmark of the resource platform. “The platform will have checklists, samples or templates, not simply ‘how-to’ articles,” said Koenig.The site will have, for instance, an annual report template that nonprofit executive directors can customize with a logo and add their organization’s own financial information.”The larger goal of the nonprofit resource platform is to allow nonprofits to do what they do best – focus on their mission – so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time,” said Koenig. “Rather than the executive directors spending hours on administrative minutiae, they can focus on mission-building.”The platform will be rolled out in stages over five years, with the first phase to be launched in late spring. Koenig said that there will be current data in all of the categories, but the two or three most utilized by nonprofits will be more fully featured at the start.The other categories will be built out in subsequent weeks.”The point is to have no ‘under construction’ signs,” said Koenig.What is not yet clear at this point is exactly how membership to the platform will be designed.Koenig said tiered memberships of some kind will probably be offered, with free access to some information and some requiring a “gold-level” membership.”The point is to make the platform self-sustaining,” she said.Thus far, the nonprofit resource platform has received $350,000 in initial funding from project partners as well as an additional $400,000 in tax credits from the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority.”That allows us to go out a little further and really extend the quality and depth,” said Koenig. “We can put up videos and maybe offer purchaser group subscriptions to foundation research databases.”Added the Charitable Foundation’s Merrow: “We see this as a tool benefiting the whole community. If nonprofits are running more efficiently and have better access to quality tools, it will benefit the community.”Cindy Kibbe can be reached at