Since the earliest days of La Plata County, when founders were forming a community from scratch, people have been raising money for civic improvement.
Pastors were passing the hat to build churches. Members of the Reading Club of Durango were organizing balls and lectures to build a public library and open a soup kitchen. And the Sisters of Mercy were going door to door to raise money to build a hospital and school, while the “Men’s Quartette” held a singing fundraiser for the cause. A newspaper account of the festivities is silent about whether there was a silent auction.
Fast forward 132 years, and raising money for civic improvement has exploded, with local residents supporting causes ranging from feeding and housing the needy to supporting the arts, sports and education; and to helping people in the world beyond our county’s – and nation’s – borders.
How many nonprofits are there in La Plata County? How big a part of the local economy is this sector? How much do area residents donate? How does Durango compare with the rest of Colorado? How many hours do residents volunteer? What is it like to work with the hungry, with artists, with abused animals? What does the future hold for this dynamic sector of the community?
View from afar
Eleven major funders from the Front Range have given more than $10.2 million to La Plata County nonprofits in the past five years. As organizations that work with nonprofits across the state, they are in a unique position to analyze the sector in La Plata County.
“You’re so geographically removed from the Front Range,” said Peter Maiurro, vice president of El Pomar Foundation, which has given $5.56 million in 535 grants to Southwest Colorado since 1937. “By necessity, you’ve had your own autonomy, and that’s a good thing. My sense is that you have a very, very robust nonprofit community.”
How many nonprofits are there?
The bottom line is, nobody can say for sure, but the number is in the 300 to 400 range.
Figuring out how many nonprofits operate in the county is a Herculean task with an ever-changing answer. GuideStar, which provides access to Internal Revenue Service Form 990s for many nonprofits, says there are 399, but a closer look shows that more than 100 are ditch companies, groups such as 4-H Clubs and churches.
(For sanity purposes, churches and many church programs are excluded from the total.) But Volunteers of America, which operates Durango Community Shelter, Southwest Safehouse and the Back Home and Transitional Housing programs for veterans, is technically considered a church, and Mercy Health Foundation is part of Centura Health. Those are clearly nonprofits that benefit the community, and they are included, even though neither organization files a Form 990.
According to the IRS’s Exempt Organization’s Business Master File, at the end of 2013, La Plata County had 248 nonprofits, with 200 filing a Form 990 or Form 990-N. Their total revenue was $85.3 million, and they held assets of almost $115 million.
Neither the IRS nor GuideStar count nonprofits that operate under the umbrellas of other organizations. Durango Friends of the Arts and the Health Coalition of Southwest Colorado, for example, are fiscally sponsored funds under the umbrella of another 501(c)3 organization, in their case the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado. The community foundation had 15 fiscally sponsored funds at the end of 2013, not to mention 26 organizational funds (in essence, savings accounts for nonprofits) and 28 donor-advised funds (family funds that give to other nonprofits).
The final count comes out somewhere in the neighborhood of 300, but that does not include clubs such as Rotary, Kiwanis, Civitan and Lions or civic groups such as Elks, Masons, Veterans of Foreign Wars or others that raise money and provide numerous philanthropic services to our community.
Do we have too many nonprofits?
“Of course, we have too many nonprofits,” said Susan Lander, former executive director of the Women’s Resource Center and Music in the Mountains, who consults with nonprofits. “When I was at the Community Resource Center in the 1990s, there were 17,000 nonprofits in the state, and 11,000 of them didn’t have budgets over $25,000. That hasn’t changed.”
Going with the conservative estimate of 300 in Durango, that comes out to one nonprofit for every 167 of La Plata County’s estimated 50,000 residents.
“We have so many nonprofits that are one bake sale away from failing,” said Mike Smedley, who recently joined the community foundation’s board of directors. “We definitely have too many.”
People looking at La Plata County from outside aren’t so sure.
“You certainly have pretty strong numbers compared to nearby regions,” Maiurro said. “In the San Luis Valley, there are fewer than 30, and the San Juan Region, where Gunnison and Montrose are located, has about 40.”
Evaluating the number of nonprofits has more to do with determining whether they are meeting a community need. Every funder interviewed said most of La Plata County’s nonprofits are efficient and have strong leadership.
“I would say that most of them are obviously achieving their mission,” said Maria Fabula, president and CEO of the Community Resource Center in Denver, which offers training for nonprofit leaders and helps organize Rural Philanthropy Days, which introduces local nonprofits to Front Range funders and vice versa. “It’s very challenging to start a nonprofit, with rigorous and time-consuming paperwork. And you have to have community support, or you cannot and will not succeed. Nonprofits are just like the marketplace, and we see businesses close all the time because they can’t sell their product.”
One of Durango’s strengths may be that people have choices, said Sarada Leavenworth, executive director of Volunteers of America.
“When we go shopping, we have choices, and in the nonprofit service world, it’s also good to have choices,” she said, “For example, we offer the Safehouse for people in crisis mode, and Alternative Horizons helps women at a different stage in coping with domestic violence with counseling and vouchers. With two providers working closely with each other, there’s an increase in accessibility, an increase in feeling safe.”
Note: There are 29 types of 501(c) nonprofits listed under the Internal Revenue Service code, including social and recreational clubs, chambers of commerce, cemetery companies and veterans’ organizations created before 1880. This series is focusing only on those that fit under the 501(c)3 heading for what many people think of when thinking about charities.
Even in that case, churches, ditch companies and a few other miscellaneous organizations have been excluded. La Plata Electric Association, for example, technically qualifies as a nonprofit because it’s a rural electricity cooperative, and its annual income of more than $99,000,000 would rank it as the biggest in the county. But it’s the LPEA Round Up Foundation that qualifies for this series.