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What I have learned working for United Way

As many of you already know, I have announced my retirement from United Way of Southwest Colorado after 10 years on the job. I will become the director of the Durango Business Improvement District effective Jan. 2.

In my 10 years working for United Way of Southwest Colorado, and another six years working for two other local United Ways, I have learned a lot about the nonprofit sector. Contrary to popular opinion, nonprofits are businesses with similar pressures and requirements as for-profit organizations.

Nonprofit organizations have to earn every dime they make, just like a for-profit company does. We do not have something on our shelves that our customers can come in to purchase. Our customers are clients who typically cannot pay anything for the service. Donors help make up the gaps, and what they are buying is typically not something tangible. They are buying a promise from the nonprofit to help people, families and our community. What is harder to sell?

Nonprofit businesses employ local people. A recent study I conducted with a colleague showed nonprofit organizations in La Plata County employe about 1 out of every 7 workers. Nonprofits occasionally struggle to meet payroll, and often wonder how that will happen when an annual grant source changes what it will fund without any notice. Sound familiar?

Nonprofit organizations keep a constant eye on the bottom line. We look at budgets, statements of cash flows, balance sheets and profit and loss reports. We have staff members with financial expertise who report regularly to volunteer finance committees and boards of directors. We are audited by independent CPAs on an annual basis. We also report to the IRS each year, file two reports with the Colorado secretary of state’s office and then report to a multitude of grantors about how money they provided was used.

The best nonprofits attempt to save a little money each year for that rainy day that will inevitably come. Nonprofits try to have three- to six-month operating reserves, which takes a lot of planning and follow-through.

Nonprofits are held to a higher standard in terms of its cost ratios. When was the last time you went into a restaurant, ordered a meal and then asked how much of your bill was going to cover operating costs? This never happens, but it does occur all the time in nonprofit businesses. Salaries are pubic information, and many people make the choice to support a nonprofit organization solely based on costs.

Nonprofit organizations also have to use professional marketing tactics without very small marketing budget. Nonprofits need to promote their fundraising events and get the word out about their services on the cheap. We use social media, print ads, radio and television ads, local newsletters and other forms of communication just like our for-profit businesses do.

I hope after reading this you feel like I do. Nonprofit organizations are businesses with professional staff running the daily operations and smart local business people on the board of directors overseeing everything. I am proud to have worked in the nonprofit sector and to have supported the best nonprofit businesses in the region.

I also want to take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone I have met and worked with over the last 10 years of running your United Way. United Way is much stronger today than when I started 10 years ago, and I am very proud of that. I did not do it on my own, so I owe a debt of gratitude to former and current United Way staff, our incredible volunteers and to the community for your trust and loyal support.

I hope United Way will continue to receive the community’s support in the future because it is a great force for the common good in Southwest Colorado. The current fundraising campaign is nearly complete and is currently projected to reach 98.3 percent of our regional goal. We need your support to fully reach the goal.

If you are thinking about a year-end donation to charity, please consider your local United Way. Visit our website at www.unitedway-swco.org and click on Give to donate today.

Tim Walsworth is president and CEO for United Way and a member of the Durango High Noon Rotary Club.