Surviving the Nonprofit Maze in Austin

By Madie Leon – December 3, 2012

Twenty-two thousand name tags weigh about 22 pounds—according to the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas staff. John Turner, the marketing and communications director, smiled as he gestured towards one of the site’s prize possessions sitting casually in a pink baby stroller. The workers joked that they were too lazy to carry the trophy around from point to point anymore, hence the unconventional seat.

Names like John, Susie, Maria, Elaine, and others each represented a face that had recently been packaging food. A silly trinket, the ball is a display of the multitudes of volunteers who have come in to aid the nonprofit in its mission. Capital Area Food Bank has found a way to keep the flow of volunteers and distribute two million pounds of food every thirty days. In the bustling atmosphere at the company’s headquarters, it is hard to imagine that Austin’s nonprofits are lacking funding and hands-on help.

Volunteering and charitable giving seem to fall hand in hand with those who love their communities. For a city that boasts devotion to the economy with thousands of t-shirts, bumper stickers, and posters with the slogan “Keep Austin Weird,” the logical connection would be to assume nonprofits are not hurting for donations.

However, the data is not necessarily there. In fact, a Chronicle of Philanthropy report shows Austin ranking 48th out of 50 largest US cities in per capita giving, and a separate Volunteering in America report ranks Austin 41st out of 51 large cities in percentage of residents volunteering. Records indicate that from 2005-2009, the rates in both charitable giving and volunteering declined steadily. Optimistic reports have now become available for 2010 rates of volunteerism, but the data is nowhere near it’s pre-recession high.

Part of the problem may be the sheer amount of nonprofits within the community. Local nonprofit I Live Here, I Give Here, a website devoted to aggregating information about Austin charities and nonprofits, lists 90 nonprofits in the area of child and youth services alone. Ninety-four organizations are registered under the umbrella of art programs. These are just two categories of ten under which local nonprofits can register. According to I Live Here, I Give Here, 89 percent of Austinites would give to a specific need in their community. However, with so many needs to be addressed and so many nonprofits present in the community, companies can no longer rely on the pure desire Austin locals have to contribute.

YMCA’s marketing and communications director, Sean Doles, admits that the number of charitable organizations brings forth certain challenges for nonprofits in the area.

“With such a high concentration of nonprofits in Austin, it's absolutely essential that organizations clearly articulate their cause and demonstrate their impact in order to cut through the clutter,” said Doles. “But we don't view it through a competitive lens. Rather, we continually look to collaborate with community partners in order to leverage our strengths and get the most out of our resources.”

Another director in the nonprofit world, Richard Craig of the Pease Park Conservancy, agrees that the “tremendously high” numbers of nonprofits must be combatted with collaboration. According to Craig, there is a finite amount of money to be given.

“All the environmental nonprofits could use more money. The poor Austin Parks Department is so underfunded. But we [the environmental nonprofit community] have formed a niche, and we generally work pretty well together,” Craig said.

Another issue the abundance of nonprofits creates is the need to get creative in gathering volunteers. While collaboration may work in sharing the burden of funding, there is a set amount of time the average volunteer can contribute to charity work, and labor is harder to share. The Pease Park Conservancy has developed a way of using the unique Austin community to help fight against the decline in volunteering rates: taking advantage of the University of Texas’ bounty of students—potential volunteers. According to Craig, groups like the Texas Wranglers, local fraternities, and other student groups often take on the job of beautifying the park. While overall excitement for volunteering in Austin may decline, the continual cycle of new students coming to get an education creates a new pool of help every year.

Nonprofits trying to push back against the negative effects of the recession should maybe take a few notes on the system Capital Area Food Bank has employed. According to Turner, the company takes an attitude of “courting” their volunteers. The idea is to make the experience something worth coming back to do again. Volunteers leave feeling refreshed and rewarded. “The secret is making it easy to help,” Turner explained, standing in a room full of volunteers at various stations, joking around with each other and excitedly getting to work.

First of all, the group appeals to businesses. Companies like Hugo Boss bring groups of their employees in for a day of volunteering and turn the day into a competition. Some companies even give the winners an extra day of vacation. Another way the volunteers are rewarded is by tangibly seeing the amount of food they have packaged. Hearing that a day’s work has produced hundreds of meals makes the volunteers feel invaluable to the process, as they are. The combination of competition, tangibility, and diversity of projects takes the act from forced public aid to an event worth repeating, increasing the retention rate for the company that has stayed consistent through each year of the recession.

Contrary to popular belief, the number of volunteers and the pocketbook balances of donors are not infinite numbers. Nonprofits within the communities have to get creative to bring back the higher rates found in Austin just ten years ago. However, it is not impossible to bring people and funds back into our charities. Nonprofits are still thriving, as John Turner from Capital Area recently told me.

“We’re still putting out a Boeing 737 worth of food every day.”

Volunteering in Austin by the Numbers 

320,200 volunteers
24.0% of residents volunteer – ranking them 41st within the 51 large cities
39.6 million hours of service
29.8 hours per resident – ranking them 34th within the 51 large cities
$846.7 million of service contributed
Courtesty of Volunteering in America. Statistics for 2011

Giving in Austin

Average median income: $50,321
For residents with incomes of $50,000 or higher:
Average discretionary income is $67, 789.
Average given to ch arity $3,931/year.
5.8% goes to charity.
Courtesy of the Chronicle of Philanthropy and City Data

Nonprofits in Austin

90 Child and youth services
24 Environmental Programs
94 Art Programs
17 Homelessness/Housing Programs
9 Poverty and Basic Needs
10 Victims’ Services
63 Community Services
64 Literacy
59 Health Care
34 Animal Welfare

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