The Virginia Network of Nonprofit Organizations (VANNO) launched in 2004 to provide a voice for the state’s nonprofit community. By 2012, it was gone.
VANNO never drummed up more than 300 membership organizations, less than 1 percent of number of nonprofits operating in Virginia at the time, according to Deborah Barfield Williamson, former executive director of VANNO. Despite diversifying funding mechanisms to include the pursuit of grants, membership dues and providing training services, its budget never climbed north of $200,000.
“We sort of fell victim to the nonprofit support system in Virginia, the recession and, quite frankly, from an advocacy standpoint, there aren’t a whole lot of legislative issues that come along in any level of government that allowed us to sustain a large and active legislative advocacy process,” Williamson said.
VANNO’s rise was in tandem with regional organization support bases that, according to Williamson, were able to provide services more efficiently than the state organization.
Some 43 states have statewide nonprofit networks or alliances affiliated with the National Council of Nonprofits (NCN), according to the council’s website. Two states, Ohio and Georgia, have similar networks that are not affiliated with the council, according to Rick Cohen, NCN’s director of communications and operations.
For the remaining states — Virginia, South Dakota, Rhode Island, New Mexico and Kansas — a lack of a traditional statewide network might be a product of lack of need, funding or opportunity.
In Virginia, a lack of advocacy opportunities created an environment where there is no clear appetite for a statewide network, said Katie Campbell, Williamson’s predecessor. “I know a lot of states claim regional identities,” Campbell said. “We’re not unique in having strong regional identities, but we do, and that makes it harder to have an umbrella model, especially when there’s a lot of strong (organizations) to support those regions.”
When VANNO first launched, leaders chose to include the world “network” in the name as to create a sense of being a place to connect, Campbell said. During its first two or three years, VANNO gathered steam and facilitated gatherings of the half dozen or so nonprofit studies programs being operated by universities and volunteer centers across the state. VANNO contracted with the Cameron Foundation, an early funder of the network, to provide training services for nonprofits in the southern portion of the state – a funding model for which VANNO was unsuccessful in finding interest across the state, Campbell said.
Today, there is no ready-made mechanism to mobilize Virginia nonprofits during statewide issues, Campbell said, adding that the immediacy of the Internet might have made getting the word out easier and less costly than a traditional association. Jacob Powell, executive director of the Virginia Conservation Network (VCN), likened Virginia to a web more than an umbrella, taking more of an interconnected approach as opposed to seeking an umbrella network.
VCN, a network of 120 environmentally focused state organizations, participates on the Virginia Civic Engagement Table along with the Virginia Education Association, Planned Parenthood and other organizations to ensure representation at voting booths. There is no systematic means of organizations from across disciplines to converse, Powell said, adding that he wasn’t sure if there was a definitive need for anything beyond what is already in place. “I don’t have a sense that there is an appetite for it statewide,” Powell said of a statewide network. “I think there are a lot of well-functioning organizations. There are a lot of pretty good interconnected webs.”
Vanessa Diamond, on the other hand, sees a value in a statewide association despite helping fill some of the void of one as vice president of the Partnership of Nonprofit Excellence (PNE), a group that provides consultation and educational services to the Richmond area. PNE meets with similar organizations across the state quarterly, Diamond said.
“We do it in spite of the fact that we don’t have (a statewide network),” Diamond said of the networks’ meetings. “I know I would want one because we are an organization that’s serving our whole region and I want somebody we can partner with for all of the state…I want somebody doing for me what we’re doing for our nonprofits.”
Nonprofit leaders in South Dakota, too, find a lack of appetite for an umbrella network, according to Betty Oldenkamp, president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services, South Dakota (LSSSD). “There have been a couple of attempts for a statewide organization, but they couldn’t get off the ground,” Oldenkamp said. “They couldn’t do anything above and beyond what South Dakota associations are already doing.”
A product of South Dakota’s modest population is the fact that nonprofit executives tend to know each other, Oldenkamp said. There is also a collection of cause-specific associations with which to affiliate, such as the South Dakota Association of Youth Care Providers, of which LSSSD is a member. Community Foundation programs in the east and west of the state chip in with training opportunities, Oldenkamp said.
In instances in which an organization, by choice or circumstance, does not have a statewide association at its disposal, it becomes more incumbent on leadership to keep ears to the ground and engage peers, Oldenkamp said. In South Dakota, there are grass-roots efforts to reach out and share information, Oldenkamp said.
The Internet makes some of this work easier. Oldenkamp uses resources such as national organization Independent Sector to keep abreast of developments coming down the pike. Email, conference calls and webinars facilitate peer discussions. “To me, adding a nonprofit association adds one more layer or level that needs to be supported in some way,” Oldenkamp said. “It doesn’t take an external body to organize some of these things.”
South and west in New Mexico, Amy Duggan, director of the United Way of Central New Mexico (UWCNM), cited a lack of statewide nonprofit advocacy as reason why the state might benefit from an umbrella organization.
UWCNM partnered with the Albuquerque Community Foundation in 2005 to create the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, a resource designed to help build training and networking. As the state’s largest United Way, UWCNM has also included on its website policy information and sample templates for nonprofits nationwide, Duggan said.
During the center’s early years, NGO New Mexico, a state association, sprung up and closed down, a product, Duggan said, of trying to do too much too fast with limited funding. A conversation has percolated in recent years about the possible need for a new statewide association to handle advocacy efforts, Duggan said, with primary considerations including funding and organizational structure.
Given the relatively small population of the state, there tends to be just two or three degrees of separation among New Mexico nonprofits as opposed to six, Duggan said. Still, there is no organized mechanism to rally organizations during instances in which decisions are being made that impact nonprofits or the populations they serve. “If we had a state association, we can be part of the larger Council of Nonprofits and understand what’s going on across the country,” Duggan said. “I think New Mexico has a huge number of strengths. If we did have a state nonprofit organization, we can take our work up a notch.”
With the Kansas Association of Nonprofits on its final legs in 1996, Mainstream, an independent nonprofit organization, took over, creating what is now the Kansas Nonprofit Association (KNA).
KNA now has more than 200 member organizations, up from about 75 in 1996, according to Herb Callison, executive director of Mainstream. The majority of organizations are located in Kansas, though there are a few in Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska, where Mainstream also provides services. Mainstream provides monthly training opportunities and produces a monthly publication, Callison said, as well as the Nonprofit Sector Advocacy Project, a marketing and advocacy initiative. Advocacy is member-driven, with seven regional coalitions in the state taking charge of advocacy and policy decisions. “We have a belief that we are satisfying what the needs are,” Callison said.
Despite the opportunities Mainstream provides, a need for a more traditional avenue for nonprofits to leverage their influence and advocate on state issues might remain, according to Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children (KAC). Cotsoradis said Kansas nonprofits have been inefficient in how they have jointly advocated, often rallying the troops for each occasion, only to see that network dissolve prior to the next call for action. “It’s one of the shortcomings of not having an umbrella,” Cotsoradis said. “We create and recreate the wheel over and over again.”
A lack of a consistent voice in advocacy particularly impacts smaller nonprofits that do not have a focus in advocacy. For example, earlier this year, the Kansas state legislature considered removing nonprofits’ tax exemption, a measure that many organizations did not know about, Cotsoradis said. Instead, a handful of larger organizations weighed in on the proposal, which was eventually voted down.
“There could have been an industry voice as opposed to a handful of nonprofits with limited capacity weighing in,” Cotsoradis said. “I think we are diminishing the power of our own voice by not having an association or having some industry representation under the dome.”
With organizations in some states trying to determine whether to pursue an umbrella organization, Jane Kornblut, a member of VANNO’s founding board, recommended being clear and specific the needs in a state before pursuing such a venture. “I think sometimes, and this may have happened with VANNO, they may try to be all things to all people.”
The potential need for advocacy is another consideration to make for such an association, Kornblut said. If advocacy is an important issue nonprofits would like to address, it should be clearly detailed in an association’s charter, she said.
Specifying a charter or mission is akin to establishing a marketing niche, Campbell added. Identifying what, if anything, the association can provide that nonprofits need and otherwise cannot get is paramount. Then come discussions of how to execute. “If we identify a few things that we could provide, what’s the best model,” Campbell said. “A traditional membership association may not be sustainable.”
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