For years, Salt Lake City’s Multicultural Legal Center, a nonprofit dedicated to providing legal assistance for undocumented immigrant women in violent relationships, offered its clients help when no one else could. Until, that is, the center was the one that needed help. Struggling for years to fund its mission, the center had to close its doors at the end of September.
“It was a challenge,” says Kim Paulding of the Utah Bar, one of the nonprofit’s funding sources. For the center’s clients, who were already dealing with domestic violence and fearing possible deportation, the threat of the center closing made them worry that their lawyers were also deserting them.
Luckily for those women, however, the center reached out to another nonprofit, Holy Cross Ministries, for help. Holy Cross offered similar services to the same population and, in effect, “took over” the nonprofit. That’s a term that, in the corporate world, may invoke the specter of a hostile takeover, but in the nonprofit world, has become a lifesaver—as was the case with Holy Cross Ministries and the Multicultural Legal Center.
Takeovers are just one of the ways Utah nonprofits have been increasing collaboration and cooperation in recent months to help one another soldier through the recession.
Earlier this month, the Community Foundation of Utah released the results of a survey of 154 Utah nonprofits regarding their funding and prospects for continued operation. The report, aptly titled “Living on the Edge,” sums up how the economy is pushing many local nonprofits to the brink. Most notably, 35 percent of the agencies had no reserve funds and 60 percent of those that did had already begun to tap into those funds.
While nonprofits are struggling, they’re also learning to help each other, as 72 percent of them reported increased collaboration with other nonprofits. In rural settings, where resources are likely to be scarcer, 94 percent of nonprofits reported increasing their collaborative efforts.
“A really deep collaboration is like a marriage, it takes a lot of work,” says Fraser Nelson, executive director of the Community Foundation. The cooperation might not be without its challenges, but it also could mean the difference between surviving the rough economy and folding. “There’re so many efficiencies that can happen with organizations sharing a space—maybe sharing a bookkeeper or marketing your activities together.”
Many nonprofit partnerships were in effect before the economy nosedived but are now seeing an increased emphasis. For example, the Utah Food Bank has worked with regional food pantries on its grocery rescue program for more than four years, says Utah Food Bank spokeswoman Jessica Pugh. The program helps train the 125 regional banks and pantries across Utah to approach grocery stores to collect items—deli meats, bread and other perishables— nearing their expiration dates.
The food bank also offered the use of mobile refrigerated trailers to the smaller food banks for these collections. In previous years, the Utah Food Bank’s inventory collected from the grocery rescue averaged 6 percent of the its inventory, while in 2009, it’s approaching 12 percent.
“Our nonprofit community is closeknit,” Pugh says. “Even though we’re all seeking funding and resources for our own initiatives, we all see value in collaborating.”
Indeed, some joint activities seemed counterintuitive until nonprofits realized they are not always competing with one another. Recently, the Salt Lake Acting Company and Plan-B Theatre began giving fliers to customers for each other’s productions, a move that helped both companies.
“What a better way to draw a new audience to their work than advertise through another group?” the Community Foundation’s Nelson says, adding that instead of losing audience members, the opposite occurred. “In fact, they enhanced both.”
Nelson says the recession has allowed these nonprofits to learn how to take a cue from the business world about efficiency by consolidating, and even merging, organizations.
According to the Community Foundation’s report, nonprofit mergers between programs with similar services are slowly rising in Utah. Among the 154 survey participants, seven had created “new and fully integrated organizations” and five had created new subsidiary organizations within other nonprofits.
But getting this close and personal with another organization is not without its drawbacks, as 44 percent of the collaborating nonprofits found creating a shared culture presented a challenge, along with clarifying roles and joint fundraising.
Still, other organizations have already found that mergers may not be necessary if similar organizations can just collaborate on other fronts, like building space, staff and resources. The pioneers of this practice are the entities that make up the And Justice for All Community Legal Center, a building on 205 N. 400 West that houses offices for entities like the Disability Law Center, Utah Legal Aid and Utah Legal Services.
Director Kai Wilson describes the three group’s initial collaborations in 1998 as the “dating phase,” before they moved in together in 2001. Now, the agencies maintain separate programs while sharing office space, a receptionist, phones and tech staff.
“[Our] three agencies save about $500,000 a year from what we would pay if we were located separately,” Wilson says.
Recently, Catholic Community Services has been following the legal center’s lead. Shortly after their Weigand Day Center for homeless individuals was in danger of being closed down for a lack of funds, the community rallied, and some key donations from city and county government as well as the private sector kept the center afloat. Now, the Weigand Center is partnering with the Road Home, on Rio Grande Street, to share, at no cost, upstairs office space. There, Road Home staff will soon operate an emergency assistance station for clients who need bus tokens, help obtaining ID and other services.
The local Volunteers of America chapter also collaborated with Catholic Community Services and the YWCA in helping out Candy Cane Corner—a donation center where homeless families can obtain Christmas gifts for their families.
For Sam Stephenson of the Utah VOA, the Candy Cane Corner is a great example of nonprofits becoming greater than the sum of their parts.
“It’s a service we can’t really provide singularly,” he says. “But it’s a service we can provide very effectively and efficiently when we combine our efforts.”