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OPINION: Mapping Local Nonprofit Sector's Future

By Chris Prentice, posted Jan 22, 2021
North Carolina is home to over 50,000 tax-exempt organizations, and roughly 1,250 of those nonprofits are in New Hanover county.
 
Nonprofits provide avenues for artistic exploration and expression, opportunities to congregate and join in religious activity, programs that address the health and basic needs of a broad array of individuals and advocacy activities that advance social causes and influence public policy.
 
About 200 direct service nonprofits in New Hanover county provide food, housing, income assistance, health care, education and employment support to countless individuals and families in our community. In the COVID-19 era these local frontline nonprofits are helping our neighbors most in need, while facing drastic increases in demands for their services and with fewer resources than before the pandemic struck.
 
But they can’t do it alone. Collaboration among nonprofits is essential to the health of our region. Some of the most effective interventions come when nonprofits from across the sector work together to achieve a common goal.
 
In a forthcoming article in The Foundation Review, my colleagues and I investigated the role that a handful of organizations in our region played in assisting service-delivery nonprofits as they confronted COVID-19. These nonprofit infrastructure organizations offer support to other nonprofits by strengthening capacities, mobilizing resources, providing expertise and building strategic alliances. In this community two such organizations – United Way of the Cape Fear Area and Cape Fear Collective – helped finance and facilitate alternative short-term housing solutions for families in shelters to help them avoid contracting COVID-19, launch a website that connects the public with local nonprofits and facilitates philanthropic engagement and provide data analytic support to organizations interested in tracking which groups are most affected by COVID-19.
 
Collaboration can reduce inefficiency, increase economies of scale and create synergy that produce more effective and timely programs and services. At its best, collaboration helps organizations leverage resources to more quickly and cheaply do together that cannot be done alone. As we consider as a community how to stretch our limited resources in response to increasing individual needs, these nonprofit infrastructure organizations and others must establish better methods for facilitating effective collaboration.
 
But creating and sustaining effective collaboration is hard to do.    
 
The problem most nonprofit managers face is knowing when to collaborate, with whom to collaborate and how to effectively collaborate. Over-worked and under-resourced nonprofits are often so consumed by day-to-day activities that they rarely have the time to thoughtfully construct strategic collaborative engagements.
 
It’s incumbent upon those groups who can help nonprofits identify useful avenues for collaboration to step in and do so. To be more successful moving forward, we need to develop a clearer picture of all nonprofit activity in our region and develop proactive solutions.
 
That’s why researchers from UNCW’s Center for Social Impact and Cape Fear Collective initiated a series of projects that explore how data can be used to drive actionable intelligence in the local health and human service ecosystem.
 
We are currently conducting interviews with nonprofit managers in our region and collecting information about each entity’s funding and communication flows, and their collaborative programmatic engagements.
 
We’re also learning what organizational outcomes they track and what type of support they require. Combining this information with publicly available federal and state data will allow us to identify inefficiencies in the local service-delivery market, areas of duplication, gaps in service provision and viable avenues for productive collaboration. Policymakers and nonprofit practitioners can also use these insights to inform their decision-making and program design.
 
We’ve interviewed 56 organizations, and we’re hoping to reach hundreds more nonprofits and other organizations that provide them with financial support, programmatic resources and volunteer labor.
 
Our goal with this research is to help local nonprofits, for-profits and government organizations create a shared understanding of the community’s assets and deficiencies, make collective decisions that produce mutual benefit and align programming in pursuit of a healthier and more equitable community for all Cape Fear residents.
 
If you’re a nonprofit manager or sit on a board of directors and want to join us in this effort, then please contact us: [email protected].

Chris Prentice is director of the Center for Social Impact and an associate professor of nonprofit management at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He also serves as board chair for the United Way of the Cape Fear Area and as a research and data adviser to the Cape Fear Collective.
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