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Montana Nonprofits: The Economic Engines That Could

Montana Nonprofits:  The Economic Engines That Could

The other day, I ran into an old friend at the grocery store.  “Are you still with United Way?” she asked.  “Yes,” I said.  “And is that what you do full-time?” she continued.  I gave her the only answer that came to mind:  “I’m trying to get it down to full time,” I said.

That exchange got me thinking.  Those of us in the nonprofit sector need to do a better job educating folks about the scope of our work; not just about how working for nonprofits is a vocation – even a  calling – rather than a part-time hobby, but about the size and impact of Montana’s nonprofit sector. 

Too often, we’re seen principally as supplicants with our hands out, seeking a grant here, a donation there, and yet another silent auction item for yet another silent auction.  Yes, nonprofits do ask a lot – that’s how we support our organizations.  But we need to do a better job talking about our overall impact in Montana, including our economic impact. 

Nonprofits employ 45,000 people throughout Montana, making our sector one of the largest in the state.  We’re bigger than the for-profit finance, insurance, real estate, and arts & entertainment sectors combined.   According to the Montana Nonprofit Association, Montana's 2,000+ charitable nonprofit employers contribute over $1.5 billion annually to our state’s wage base. 

But our reach extends beyond our payroll.  The work of nonprofits ripples out into the state’s economy.   People want to live, work, play and go to school in a place that offers strong cultural, recreational, and educational opportunities; where we care for our kids and our seniors and our parks and trails and pets; where folks can find meaningful volunteer opportunities and a chance to give back.  A vibrant nonprofit sector helps ensure a high quality of life – and that’s good for Montana’s economy. 

Nonprofits do an awful lot for very little.  Eighty-one percent of Montana nonprofits have budgets of less than $100,000.  Despite these meager resources, nonprofits are mighty “little engines that could,” achieving results far beyond what they spend to do do. 

We’re also extraordinarily diverse:  the University of Montana is a nonprofit organization, and so are small private schools.  Missoula Children’s Theatre is nonprofit, and so is that edgy dance troupe you went to see the other night.  The Montana Food Bank Network is a statewide nonprofit, serving small local food pantries – also nonprofit – throughout Montana.

But here’s what we have in common:  we all do work that government and the business sector can’t do, won’t do or doesn’t do – but in which we all have a stake.  Through nonprofits, the public trust is put in private hands.  What would Montana be without art and music and programs for our children?  Would we really attract and keep businesses and professionals without the quality of life that so many nonprofits work to protect and improve?  

People sometimes complain to me about how often they’re asked for donations.  I get it.  I’m overwhelmed, too, whether it’s by United Way grant-seekers whose proposals we’re not able to fully fund or by the endless stream of ask letters that flood my home mailbox.  As a recent New York Times article pointed out, government funding has not returned to prerecession levels, philanthropic dollars are limited, and demand for critical services has climbed dramatically.  For many nonprofits – especially those that provide the very basics to poor people – it’s as if the recession never ended.  In general, nonprofits are accustomed to doing lots with less, but most of us have accepted the fact that we’re going to be dealing with stagnant revenues and higher demands for years to come, even as the economy creeps back.  I, too, could do with a lot fewer dinners and auctions, but the fact is that they raise a lot of money – and we need a lot of money to continue providing vital and beneficial services to our state.

I’ll end tonight by trying to bust a Missoula nonprofit myth and by asking you to support a unique Missoula giving event.  First the myth:  more than a decade ago, a single sentence in Forbes magazine stated that Missoula has more nonprofits per capita than any other city in the country.  Years later, I still hear that.  Here’s why it’s incorrect.  First, you have to subtract the chapters of Missoula-based regional, national or international organizations that exist all over the country but are registered in Missoula – the RMEF alone has hundreds.  Those chapters are registered here, but they don’t operate in here.  Second, for whatever reason, people in Missoula have created lots of nonprofits – frankly, it’s too easy to do – but a great many of those organizations never get off the ground.  They don’t hire staff, or raise enough money to really accomplish anything, but they’re still registered with the Secretary of State.  Counting only the nonprofits that pay wages and file tax returns gives us the much more manageable number of 253.  It’s a lot, but it’s not breathtaking.  According to the Montana Nonprofit Association, of our state’s seven population centers, Helena has the highest density of nonprofits.  So there.

Finally, here’s the unique Missoula giving event.  On May 6, the Missoula Community Foundation is sponsoring Give Local Missoula, a 24-hour, online giving event.  Part of a national event called Give Local America, Give Local Missoula is designed to engage first-time donors and donors under 40 while raising the profile of charitable giving.  Gifts made during Give Local Missoula will be matched by a $10,000 stretch pool.  That’s a cause worth supporting.  Go to for more information. 

I’m Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of United Way of Missoula County.  Thanks for listening.  

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