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Opinion: Nonprofits fill many roles to drive community

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What is it that makes Springfield such a great place to live and raise a family? Some say it’s our terrific parks or library system. Others say it’s our quality health care and low cost of living. It could be high-performing schools and colleges. Or maybe it’s our culture of caring for vulnerable citizens.

Whatever the answer, there’s one common thread: nonprofit organizations. From small startups run by volunteers to large, complex operations with thousands of employees, nonprofits help individuals and communities thrive.

Nonprofits are instrumental in feeding the hungry, educating children, rescuing abandoned animals, cleaning streams and housing the homeless. They shelter victims of violence, provide opportunities to experience art and music, and promote diversity and inclusion. The sector includes museums, orchestras, schools, membership cooperatives, and some credit unions.

Here are six ways nonprofits bring benefits to our region:

1. Uniting people for a common cause or purpose. When an individual, family or community hurts, people tend to pull together to help. Nonprofits provide a gathering point for people to work side by side toward a common cause, regardless of age, race, politics or religion.

2. Elevating knowledge and awareness of vital issues. Many social issues are hard to understand and even harder to solve. Nonprofits often understand better than anyone the community’s needs and serve as an important link to the people they serve and the general public. Through outreach and programs, they provide insight on an issue, spurring others to take action.

3. Providing opportunities for involvement. Nonprofits help connect people to causes they care about. Whether it’s serving meals at a mission, sorting groceries or reading to children, organizations offer a tangible way for the community to make a difference in others’ lives. Involvement has many forms, including volunteering, serving on a board or committee, donating dollars or services, etc. Each type is instrumental in helping organizations achieve mission success.

4. Stabilizing individuals and families. Vulnerable individuals and families often lack basic resources and support. Nonprofit organizations are well known for bringing together a complex web of support, collaborating with others to provide personalized programs. With compassion and care, they help remove barriers and bring stability to families and neighborhoods.

5. Lessening the burden of government. Governments are often strapped financially and sometimes look to nonprofits for help. Even the IRS acknowledges that charitable groups can be instrumental “for the establishment of parks, fire protection, public or community buildings.” For instance, nonprofit organizations help support public libraries and zoos. They provide advocates for foster children to assist courts in making placement decisions. They form volunteer fire departments for rural areas, and they provide after-school reading programs.

6. Informing policymakers. Government laws at all levels greatly impact individuals and communities. With their in-depth involvement and knowledge, nonprofit organizations serve as a vital voice, updating policymakers on current issues that affect their constituency. This type of advocacy may involve educating the public about a policy or urging a policymaker to create laws that support a specific project.

The days of thinking of nonprofits as just social workers, nuns and retirees operating out of a broom closet are gone. Beyond their human and social value, these organizations provide an incredible economic engine for the region. Greene County alone has 2,770 registered nonprofit organizations with an annual income of $5.6 billion, according to research agency TaxExemptWorld. The Springfield metropolitan statistical area – comprising Greene, Christian, Webster, Polk and Dallas counties – has 3,521 nonprofits.

Even with the great work being done, nonprofits can’t do it alone. In fact, no one sector or industry can solve our community’s issues. The key is collective impact.

Businesses can make volunteerism and community engagement part of their DNA. They can use their resources and connections to help organizations accomplish their missions.

Religious congregations can use their resources and members to meet physical, spiritual and emotional needs.

Government leaders can create policies that are favorable for all groups and individuals – not just a select few.

Individuals can donate their time and dollars to help organizations that are understaffed and have scarce resources. They can get to know neighbors and become actively involved in their lives.

Because so many groups and individuals have the chance to make a positive impact, even if it’s in small quantities, it’s important for us all to work together. Together, let’s make the kind of improvements that will continue to make Springfield a great place to live.

Dan Prater is a senior managing consultant of nonprofit excellence with BKD LLP. He can be reached at dprater@bkd.com.

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