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Taking stock of Vermont’s nonprofit sector

New report looks at challenges, opportunities among Vermont’s charitable organizations

BRATTLEBORO—There are more than 4,000 nonprofit organizations in Vermont — ranging in size and scope from the University of Vermont to the Brattleboro Historical Society.

These organizations provide essential health and human services, arts and culture, community development, environmental stewardship, education, and a host of other services in every county of the state.

But this sector — which generates $4.1 billion in revenue and accounts for nearly one-fifth of the Vermont gross state product — and the vital role it plays in the lives of Vermonters — is rarely looked at as a whole.

That has changed with a new report from the Vermont Community Foundation (VCF), which was founded in 1986 with the mission of strengthening the nonprofit sector and growing Vermont’s philanthropic resources.

Vermont’s Nonprofit Sector: A Vital Community in a Time of Change, provides the first comprehensive look at the sector in almost a decade. VCF worked closely with the Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont and Common Good Vermont to conduct the surveys and interviews earlier this year that provided the basis for the report’s findings.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, president and CEO of the Middlebury-based foundation, said in a recent visit to Brattleboro that the report goes beyond the numbers and looks at the impressions Vermonters have of the nonprofit world.

“Nonprofits don’t always tell their stories effectively,” Comstock-Gay said during an interview with The Commons. “It’s hard for them to do so, because they’re so focused on their missions. But the better that nonprofits can explain what they are doing and why it is important, the more that people trust and value what they do.”

According to the report, Vermont ranks seventh in the nation for its rate of volunteerism, and second in the nation for its teenage volunteer rate. About 20.7 million hours valued at $431.2 million are volunteered by Vermonters each year.

Vermonters are relatively well-aware of the nonprofit sector and there is room for that awareness to grow, the report finds.

And, according to the report, Vermonters trust and respect the nonprofit sector to deliver quality services.

“This is a small state, and people know each other,” said Comstock-Gay. “Most nonprofits are close enough to the people they serve that they know where the money is going and that it’s being used wisely.”

The trust that Vermonters have in nonprofits is significantly higher than the national average. While national surveys find only 1 in 5 Americans think nonprofits do a very good job running programs and services, the report found that 46.2 percent of Vermonters have a “great deal” of confidence that nonprofits provide quality services, particularly local ones.

However, the lingering effects of the current recession have hit all nonprofits hard. While 60 percent of nonprofit leaders say that individual donors are either “somewhat” or “much less” generous than usual, 72 percent say demand for services has greatly increased.

As for the leaders of nonprofits, the report found that they are concerned about declining levels of support, but they remain resilient and committed to their work. As nonprofits struggle to meet their budgets, economic pressures are moving many to be more creative and entrepreneurial.

Comstock-Gay said that a more effective nonprofit sector not only delivers services more efficiently, but also attracts greater giving. He pointed out that area communities benefit from both.

“There are so many things that nonprofits do that for-profit entities can’t or won’t do. Nonprofits are vital in making our state the compassionate, safe, and creative place that it is,” he said. “If for-profits could make money doing these things, they would be delivering those services, and more power to them if they can make a profit. But as our economy changes, we’re going to need new delivery models.”

He said government, nonprofits, and for-profits need to develop an “a-sectoral perspective” to figure out which is best at delivering a particular service.

“There’s not one single solution, and the models that worked in the past won’t necessarily work in the future,” Comstock-Gay said. “Most of all, we need to stop looking at nonprofits as ‘the other’ and start looking at them as another sector to work with.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #81 (Wednesday, December 29, 2010).

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