Guest Editorial: Tough times call for teamwork

Hard times severely challenge the people and communities served by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. It has been a decade since we have faced such economic problems.

Individuals, businesses, nonprofits and government are feeling the pinch – literally, at the pump, and strategically, among competing demands and priorities. Times like these reveal the importance of forming public/private partnerships to address the state’s serious problems. No one organization can do it alone.

On the positive side, many charitable donors continue to show their caring through generous gifts, evidenced by the fact that the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation had a record year in 2007 with $72 million in gifts. Assets have grown within reach of half a billion. This is all due to the vision and generosity of many philanthropic businesses, families and individuals.

These numbers are big; our statewide community foundation is strong. But examine the context:

• The total public expenditure in New Hampshire on public education, K-12, in 2006 was about $2.4 billion.

• The total spent on health and human services for our communities was $1.8 billion.

• Food stamp use is up 18 percent over last year; demands on the New Hampshire Food Bank are up 42 percent.

• The state budget gap, housing slump and health-care puzzle remain on the horizon.

These expenditures and stubborn challenges dwarf the foundation’s $35 million payout last year.

At times like these, nonprofit organizations – our partners who provide the direct services to our communities – have to withstand a double-whammy: More people need their services at the very time their donation coffers shrink. Witness the jump in grant requests for our statewide funds: up 59 percent this spring over last.

Especially in tough times, private dollars can never be more than a modest part of the answer.

In certain cases, the most useful work we can do is marshal all of our resources behind an idea – for some combination of dollars, ideas, allies and a collaborative process among many players to develop lasting answers. It is done by uniting public and private partners to address the most significant problems facing our communities. This requires funding, of course, but it also means tracking emerging issues, convening and advocacy. It means aligning four types of capital – financial, social, reputation and knowledge. This civic leadership may be the most New Hampshire way of serving our communities.

Whether through grants, partnerships or civic leadership, in tough times the Charitable Foundation’s work is even more challenging. To improve the quality of life in our communities, we must choose among different strategies:

• Help those who are hurting the most – with immediate food, clothing and shelter.

• Invest to produce new jobs and improve the economy.

• Encourage nonprofit mergers.

• Sustain threatened public services, even if it means using charitable dollars to augment carefully selected, publicly financed services.

• Compete for private and public dollars from outside New Hampshire, knowing that we will win only some, especially as the competition rises.

This state is blessed with a lot of smart people. Together – as businesspeople, nonprofit leaders, government officials and individual citizens, we’ve accomplished a great deal.

Yet, tough times remind us that more than ever, we need new approaches to old problems.

Lewis Feldstein is president of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a mission to improve the quality of life in the state’s communities. This essay was adapted from his address to more than 500 people at the foundation’s June 3 annual meeting in Manchester.