N.H. nonprofits must get creative in recession

The United Way of the Greater Seacoast’s recent announcement that it would cross the border and merge with the Massachusetts-based United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley – a move that officials said was an effort to streamline operations and increase fund-raising – may be a sign of things to come in the nonprofit sector.

As the recession continues to drive down spending, New Hampshire nonprofits “are unsure of their future,” said Mary Ellen Jackson, executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits, an organization that provides resources and training to nonprofit organizations.

Jackson said that, since her organization relies heavily on the dues paid by member nonprofits, “we’ve got the same challenges [as other nonprofits].”

She added: “For us, it is a challenging environment. We’re trying to get resources to the nonprofits in the community. We need to keep our organization strong to support them.”

While the Portsmouth-based Women’s Business Center is persevering financially, said Christine Davis, the business assistance organization’s executive director, the heightening anxiety that things will get worse is as difficult to battle as finding new funding sources.

“We struggle with the fear that is out there in the community — we try not to buy into that,” she said. “We’re trying to stay focused on what we’ve got going.”

A study recently released by the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits shows how deeply woven into the fabric of the Granite State’s economy nonprofits are.

According to “Essential: A Portrait of the Nonprofit Sector in New Hampshire,” there are over 7,800 nonprofit organizations in the state. The sector employs nearly 14 percent — or one in eight workers — in New Hampshire, and many of those positions come with good wages and benefits. Nationally, the sector employs 10.4 percent.

While many of the New Hampshire workers are employed at nonprofit hospitals and other health-care organizations, the overall nonprofit sector in New Hampshire has grown by 50 percent in the last 15 years. In fact, $8 billion, or 14.5 percent, of New Hampshire’s gross state product is derived from the work of nonprofits.

Nationwide, the nonprofit sector contributes about 13 percent.

Even in prosperous years, New Hampshire’s nonprofit organizations have to keep a close eye on the bottom line.


According to Jackson, the struggling economy has placed even more importance on the Center for Nonprofits as more organizations look for help.

“Our role now is to quickly convene people,” said Jackson, who said, to that end, the center is putting together a summit for July, “New Realities, New Possibilities.”

Jackson said the Center for Nonprofits is placing a priority on “shoring up” the basics, including infrastructure, looking where to cut costs, contacting donors, examining grant opportunities and performing scenario planning.

“We, like other nonprofits, are looking at what is vital to the mission and what we should pause on,” said Jackson.

While no one knows when the economy will be gaining stronger footing, the difficult environment might have a bit of a Darwinian effect, with stronger nonprofits surviving to better support their constituents as well as drive mergers between smaller organizations, as evidenced by the recent United Way agreement.

“There’s such a proliferation of tiny nonprofits all searching for funding,” said the WBC’s Davis. “I hope to see some merging of those with similar missions. Instead of five organizations going for the same dollar, mergers may make it only two or three. There are so many great nonprofits, many who duplicate services. It might be difficult to overcome a bit of pride, but if we stay focused on our mission, merging may make sense. And I hope people see this as a positive.”

The economic situation also is helping to foster creative solutions and partnerships among nonprofits and even between nonprofits and for-profit companies.

Jackson said that while most nonprofits are running so lean they can’t cut back on much more, she’s heard of some cost-saving strategies, such as sharing office support — one bookkeeper for three nonprofits — and some leadership staffs are considering working four-day weeks during the summer.

“Nonprofit and for-profit businesses will start partnering more” in the future, said Jackson, especially on such resources as IT support and learning how to better utilize tax refunds.

“Already, nonprofits and municipalities are partnering right away on things such as road and roof repairs.”

Davis said the WBC has been “reaching out pretty aggressively” to others in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors.

“With money so tight, getting people to come out to events has been a struggle. We’ve been partnering with other women’s groups and small-business organizations to do events together,” she said. “It’s also a good networking opportunity for our members as they meet others from different organizations.”

Ironically, for-profit layoffs may be having a positive impact on the nonprofit sector. With many more workers out of a job, some look to volunteering as a way of keeping up skills, expanding their networks and fulfilling a desire to do something beneficial as they look for a paying job.

“We’ve had a huge rise in the number of professionals wanting to do volunteer work,” said Davis. “We’re getting some incredibly talented volunteers. We’re also getting computer support, which we’ve never really had before.”

Jackson too has seen the benefit from an increase in volunteerism.

“We can’t pick it all up without infrastructure and we need to learn better how to leverage volunteer power,” she said.

(A copy of “Essential: A Portrait of the Nonprofit Sector in New Hampshire” may be downloaded at www.nhnonprofits.org/profiles/impact.cfm.)

Cindy Kibbe can be reached at ckibbe@nhbr.com.