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What Americans don’t know about Nonprofits, Vermonters probably do


One evening last week, I received a phone call from one of our region’s most thoughtful volunteer fundraisers, a soft-spoken community leader I admire tremendously.

After we discussed the purpose of her call — to secure hosts for an event to benefit a vital housing nonprofit — we proceeded to other topics. When she signaled the end to our call, she did so almost apologetically: she had just landed in Chicago and had to get going to an important family gathering.

That this volunteer fundraiser was so committed that she made a business call while in transit at one of the busiest airports in the world, while also taking care of her family, was remarkable for so many reasons.

Many Vermonters are aware that nonprofits depend on individual donors for funds and other support, especially since government funding is becoming more scarce. They also are aware that nonprofits throughout the country — about 6,000 in Vermont alone — depend on dedicated volunteers like my friend, in addition to modestly compensated staff, to sustain their organizations.

Yet, an article in the May 2023 issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, titled, “What Americans Don’t Know About Nonprofits” cites a study that indicates a lot of Americans are, in fact, not aware of the value of nonprofits or what it takes to sustain them. 

A few of the findings from the study, produced by Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and based on a survey of about 1,300 people conducted last summer, might surprise Vermonters:  

Fewer than 20% of those surveyed think nonprofits are on the right track 

Only 1/3 believe charities contribute a lot to society 

Only 14% said they had a lot of confidence in nonprofits’ ability to solve problems

Very few think they’ve benefitted from a nonprofit 

Perhaps the most distressing insight, per The Chronicle, is this one: “20 years ago, about 85% of Americans gave. That share has steadily declined to about 50%.”

As might be surmised, The Chronicle of Philanthropy is targeted at those who work for charitable and educational institutions but its articles are also relevant to the general public that supports and cares about nonprofits.

To that point, the cover story of that issue of The Chronicle was a multi-page feature on how organizations around the country are addressing the housing crisis, which is extremely relevant to Vermonters.

Titled, “Everyone Should Care About Housing: It’s the key to education, health, economic opportunity and more,” it included inspiring examples of how individual donors, foundations, builders, community land trusts, houses of worship, community development institutions and tenant groups, are collaborating strategically to remedy the housing crisis.

In Vermont, that exact kind of collaboration is now intensifying, driven by affordable-housing nonprofits around the state, including Housing Trust of Rutland County, and NeighborWorks of Western Vermont. Likewise, the nonprofit Rutland Regional Planning Commission is stepping up its efforts, including communicating more proactively and on a regular basis with diverse stakeholders.

Also, in Rutland City, recently elected Mayor Michael Doenges, who won the election this past March, has projected a strong sense of urgency in his actions to maximize Rutland’s economic opportunities. He’s proactive, assertive, and decisive.

Doenges, whose mother served for many years as a beloved fundraiser for a Rutland-based college, is acutely aware that fulfilling his economic vision needs to involve local nonprofit leaders, especially those with proven experience and expertise in economic development.

For all those reasons and more, it would be surprising to hear that many Vermonters do not value our nonprofits, or that they couldn’t name at least one of Vermont’s many charitable foundations. It would be even more surprising if Vermonters could not name the individual nonprofits that serve their communities, as well as the staff members and volunteers who work for those organizations.

To be sure, Vermont has its share of nonprofits whose stated mission and fundraising efforts may divert urgent support from charities that address more crucial issues such as food insecurity, homelessness, and domestic violence. And, of course, there is a small minority of Vermont nonprofits that exhibit questionable ethics, especially when it comes to financial matters.

The fact is that most ethical nonprofits today, in Vermont and elsewhere, recognize their responsibility and accountability to follow ethical business practices in achieving their social mission, and they are enthusiastic about being transparent. After all, it’s very easy for any stakeholder, especially media, to find detailed information about a nonprofit’s operations.

In that regard, Vermont’s small size is a big plus. 

Many of us do, in fact, know our nonprofits. Many of us do, in fact, know many people who have been helped by Vermont’s charities. Many of us do, in fact, give what we can, to support nonprofit organizations, here and elsewhere, that need us the most.

What’s more, many of us give because we know, trust, and admire the people asking us to give — like my Rutland friend calling from Chicago to help raise money for the housing nonprofit. She’s an outstanding example of Vermonters who consistently care, consistently commit, and consistently contribute, to making Vermont a more diverse, inclusive, and caring place to live, work, and play.  That, in and of itself, is an asset anyone would consider a big plus, one that has big and positive implications for our state.

For more information visit: philanthropy.com (Chronicle); philanthropy.iupui.edu (Lilly School of Philanthropy); housingrutland.org; nwwvt.org; rutlandrpc.org.  

Liz DiMarco Weinmann, MBA, is principal and owner of Liz DiMarco Weinmann Consulting, L3C, based in Rutland, serving charitable and educational institutions: lizdimarcoweinmann.com.

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