La Plata County is blessed with a large number of individuals with the desire and the ability to help both their neighbors and the community. This is something to celebrate. It takes nothing away from that to recognize that some of the mechanisms by which that work is done can be improved upon.
A four-part Herald series on nonprofits concluded Wednesday. It asked how many nonprofits we have, how they work, what they do, who heads them and what should be done going forward.
Many of the answers were heartening. La Plata County has between 300 and 400 nonprofits, depending on exactly what is included. We tend to think of nonprofits as organizations created to do charitable work or support the arts, but ditch companies, clubs and churches can qualify as well. While all of those may not be classic examples of feeding the hungry or aiding the poor, they all contribute to the community. Whether the issue is homelessness, health care, women’s health and safety, arts and music, education, nature and the environment, youth programs or about anything else imaginable, La Plata County seems to have a nonprofit dedicated to helping out.
The question then becomes: Do we have too many nonprofits? Some locals familiar with the nonprofit scene unhesitatingly say yes. Front Range groups that work with nonprofits statewide say the number is the wrong metric. It is better, they say, to look at whether the groups are meeting community needs and fulfilling their missions.
But with at least one nonprofit for every 167 people in the county, the numbers are suggestive – so is the idea that there are many nonprofits around here that are, as one observer put it, “one bake sale from failing.”
Rather than debate how many nonprofits La Plata County should have, perhaps a better approach would be to look at what can be done to make them more effective at delivering needed services. That would probably lower the number of nonprofits somewhat, while at the same time focusing more on their purpose.
For example, Susan Lander, former head of the Women’s Resource Center asks why there are multiple nonprofits all aimed at helping women who are victims of sexual assault, threatened by domestic violence or otherwise at risk. “Why,” she wonders, “isn’t there one place where a woman who needs help can go and get it?”
That is a good question, but hardly the only such case. Do we really need seven distinct organizations targeting issues of shelter and housing? They do good work, but do they each need their own director, staff and organization?
For that matter, why do we have both Music in the Mountains and the San Juan Symphony? Could those be combined in such a way as to expand their musical offerings and perhaps reach a larger audience?
Then, too, it is not always the organizational structures at issue. Renny Fagan, head of the Colorado Nonprofit Association, points to the Commons Building as a model. In it, Southwest Colorado Community College and the Durango Education Center share space while serving similar populations.
Perhaps the best idea is from Sarada Leavenworth, district director of the Volunteers of America. She proposes a “nonprofit mentor team” for vetting new ideas and deciding whether they would work best as a new nonprofit, acting through an existing nonprofit or under the umbrella of another group. “It would not only be about not duplicating,” she says, “but about coming up with solutions.”
That focus, on solutions instead of process, may be the best way to honor the effort and contributions of this county’s giving volunteers.