Our Region’s Nonprofit Sector: Real jobs and real benefit to our community.

By Joe Liszewski

The term nonprofit organization often connotes something of lesser value and common misconceptions such as free services, volunteer managed, and low wages help to reinforce that notion. People who have made careers and work in the sector know better and much prefer the term “community benefit organization,” which focuses on the positive contributions organizations are making and the vital role they play in creating and maintaining thriving communities. The sector is getting much more sophisticated at communicating the real economic value of its work, talking in terms of measurable outcomes and backing that up with data and research just as the private sector and government has done for decades. The truth is we create jobs, have assets, support a stronger workforce through delivery of vital programs and services, and help create the type of region that attracts visitors and retains employees.

Real Jobs and Assets: A May 2014 report prepared for the Michigan Association of Nonprofits and the Council of Michigan Foundations documents that Michigan’s nonprofits employ more than 438,000 people, pay their employees more than $4.9 billion per quarter and spend more than $80 billion each year, making a significant contribution to Michigan’s economy. Locally we know that in our 10-county region, more than 12,000 – or 1 in 10 individuals – is employed by a nonprofit organization and that these organizations spent more than $1 billion in 2011.

Real Benefit: Like many of us, it was the quality of life benefits that drew me to the area, first as a visitor and more recently a resident and member of the community. These benefits are a huge part of what makes the region thrive and economy grow. Many of these quality of life attributes are the result of nonprofit organizations protecting natural resources and creating recreational and cultural opportunities. Think of the synergistic relationship between our local bike shops, TART Trails and other local employers. TART Trails provides a network of trails, bikeways and pedestrian ways and encourages their use. Local businesses and the economy benefit from the $1.8 million in household spending on bicycling related items. Area employers benefit from healthier employees (avoided health care costs of $1.6 million) and reduced absenteeism (valued at $1.3 million) due to a robust network of trails that encourage and support recreation. Just one example of how we are helping to create a region that attracts people, visitors and residents alike.

Of equal importance are the many health and human services being delivered on a daily basis by organizations throughout our region. This is exemplified by the story of local restaurateurs Eric Patterson and Jennifer Blakeslee of The Cooks’ House. Several years ago they were in need of health care and the Traverse Health Clinic was there to meet their needs. Now they’re able to return that assistance by hosting events such as the recent River’s End Block Party to support the Clinic and those that rely on its services. An example of how cross-sector collaboration creates an environment for local entrepreneurs to start a new venture.

The opportunity for more collaboration exists. The lack of talent to fill regional jobs isn’t just an education or skills issue. The absence of affordable housing is a major contributor to what will attract and retain people to this region. Work on complicated issues such as housing takes coordinated efforts across sectors, with the potential benefits being one we will all realize.

Working Together: We certainly don’t have all the answers. As much as we sometimes think we have the silver bullet to solve tough community issues alone, we also know our work is evolving. We’re adapting to think more comprehensively about the community and our region. The truth of the matter is we’re all on the same team. Living and working in a region like ours requires cooperation, partnership and innovative thinking. Results from a recent study by the National Conference on Citizenship suggest that the number of nonprofits in a community that engage and provide direct tangible benefits can also be an indicator of resilience. The findings propose that “nonprofits support social cohesion and civic engagement, when citizens feel committed to their communities and connected to their fellow residents, they are more likely to make decisions that boost local employment” – powerful thinking.

Joe Liszewski is program director of NorthSky Nonprofit Network, a program of Rotary Charities of Traverse City.