At conference, nonprofit execs voice optimism, concerns

The Center for Non-Profits held its biggest New Jersey Non-Profit Conference yet Wednesday at The Palace at Somerset Park in Somerset, hosting more than 500 attendees at its annual event.

“It provided a great opportunity for people to come together and explore the emerging trends and issues facing nonprofits, including the impact of tax reform and how nonprofits must further cope with the current regulatory and economic environments,” Linda Czipo, CEO and president of the Center for Non-Profits in Mercerville, said.

The Center for Non-Profits, which is celebrating its 35th year, is a statewide association of more than 350 nonprofits that provides policy and advocacy work while highlighting the work of the sector.

Teresa Connolly, executive director of the Community Soup Kitchen and Outreach Center in Morristown, said she attends the event each year in order to explore possibilities.

“I meet a couple people here for the first time that we then end up partnering or collaborating with moving forward,” she said.

Nancy Hedinger, president of the League of Women Voters in New Jersey in Trenton, said she attended this year’s event with a specific purpose.

“If we want to be able to effectively capture all of the recent interest in civic engagement, we need to grow fast,” she said. “2018 is going to be a big year for us and our organization also will be 100 years old in 2020. We are here because of our need to increase our capacity.”

The all-day conference highlighted the power and positive impact of New Jersey nonprofits while providing valuable breakout sessions covering advocacy, marketing, smart data gathering, leadership, nonprofit trends and technology.

Keith Timko, executive director and CEO of the Support Center in New York and chair of the strategic planning committee for the Center for Non-Profits, said he was particularly interested in what the morning speaker, Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, co-director of the Building Movement Project and co-author of “Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap,” had to say.

“By and large, nonprofits’ leadership composition is not reflective of the communities that we serve,” Timko said. “The research bears out that we are not doing as good a job as we should be to attract, retain and promote people of color within our organizations and on our boards.”

Connolly said she was impressed with the afternoon speaker, Jarrod Haning, principal violist, South Carolina Philharmonic, and his session on “Blind Spots and Breakthroughs.”

“He challenged all of us to consider how we actually spend our days by asking how many things on our daily to-do lists actually work to support our mission,” she said. “Does it make sense for us to say no to certain tasks in order to focus on things that are more important?

“He suggested we spend 15 minutes at the start of each day doing things that we know will fulfill the mission. The first few minutes of everyone’s day should not be spent checking emails or voicemails, but rather, connecting our goals for the day to our overall missions.”

Hedinger said the session that Kate Amanna Demcsak, New York lead for the Foundation Center, led on “Outcome Thinking and Management” was particularly relevant for her.

“We learned to shift our focus and communication tactics to better track our funding and outcomes,” Hedinger said. “We are about to embark on a capacity campaign so that was very helpful to our organization.”

Though the conference maintained a positive tone, many persistent challenges in the nonprofit sector also were regularly discussed, Timko said.

“For example, we’ve had this massive shift over time where nonprofits have been providing services that the government historically had as subcontractors,” Timko said. “There’s now this conversation around, well, if they give us $1 but it costs $1.10 to deliver those programs and services, we are consistently running at a deficit and can no longer operate within that environment.

“Even though the economy seems to be doing well, it does not mean that those financial pressures no longer exist. So, what can we do for individuals or organizations that need these government contracts to remain viable? How do we push back in order to ask for more money?”

Yvette Murry, CEO and president of YRM Consulting Group in New Brunswick and chairperson of the board for the Center for Non-Profits, said there also is the added confusion of what nonprofits actually do.

“People very often believe that nonprofits are charities that do not have money and that we all do this by osmosis,” she said. “But we are a major generator of income in the state — $40 billion is pumped into New Jersey’s economy alone from the nonprofit sector. So, how can we get more people to see us as that economic engine that we are?

“The only difference between a nonprofit and a for-profit is that a for-profit’s outcome goes to its shareholders. In our case, our communities are our shareholders. We invest money back into our communities to create strong and supportive places for people to live, grow and play.”

Connolly also voiced her concerns for the future despite her optimism regarding Phil Murphy’s election as governor.

“What I have seen across the board is that dollars are drying up and nonprofits are having a harder time meeting their missions,” she said. “It is dangerous to operate from a place of scarcity.

“Our clients are already on the low end of the socioeconomic ladder, and with everything going on right now with the (President Donald) Trump administration, those people are going to have that much harder of a time even stepping onto that first rung.”

Still, Czipo said, the nonprofit sector always has been able to rise above.

“The vibrant nonprofit community is essential to the well-being of our state, both economically and socially,” she said. “Nonprofits are therefore being very creative in how they are finding new ways to partner and explore new synergies.”

The new tax plan and nonprofits

Linda Czipo, CEO and president of the Center for Non-Profits in Mercerville, said the tax bill on the table is of major concern to nonprofits on many levels.

“One, it would increase the standard deduction, which would mean that fewer people would be able to deduct charitable gifts. Giving to charity is therefore estimated to drop by $13 billion every year,” she said. “Two, it may weaken the laws the protect nonprofits from partisan influences.”

The repeal of the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law that prohibits charities and churches from getting involved in political campaigns, is currently part of the House’s tax plan, Keith Timko, executive director and CEO of the Support Center in New York and chair of the strategic planning committee for the Center for Non-Profits, said.

“The center believes deeply that nonprofits should remain nonpartisan while the repeal of the Johnson Amendment potentially politicizes their very nature,” he said. “It is a pressing issue that we’ve talked a lot about our board and in our conversations with members.”

Yvette Murry, CEO and president of YRM Consulting Group in New Brunswick and chairperson of the board for the Center for Non-Profits, said there is no way around it: politics matter.

“The political climate has a direct impact on our ability to do the kind of work that we do,” she said. “There is a shortsightedness that if you take a dollar from here, it will equal a dollar somewhere else. That’s just not how it works. When you take a dollar from a program or a service, you’re undermining the education system, food and environmental systems, and more.

“We will be challenged in 2018 to really educate our legislators and our leaders to understand that the decisions they make will have a downhill impact. If they are not mindful of those consequences, they will end up spending a lot more money than $1 trillion on problems and circumstances that could have been avoided if we had just actually put the money on the front end.”

Czipo said nonprofits already have been struggling due to an increased demand for services when the resources needed to provide those services have not been keeping pace.

“All of this is simply going to exacerbate that strain on the system,” she said.