For most people, the term “non-profit” inspires images of food pantries, women’s shelters, Humane Societies, soup kitchens, and other community-improvement or assistance organizations. While many such entities are registered 501-c3 groups, that designation encompasses a much wider variety of organization than some may realize.
“When most people hear ‘non-profit’ they think of social-service organizations,” said Lou Martinez, president of the Lake Area United Way (LAUW), which issued a State of Giving Report for Lake County charitable organizations in 2004. “But it’s a lot more than that.”
Municipalities, for instance, are considered non-profit organizations. So are schools, Little League teams, volunteer fire departments, and any other 501-c3 tax-exempt groups. Feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, and protecting the defenseless are common, noble and necessary non-profit functions, but there are many different ways to impact the quality of life in Northwest Indiana. And groups that do so can qualify for a variety of grant and funding options to help fulfill their particular mission.
And, as the 2004 LAUW report showed, the one common denominator among most 501-c3s is the need for more resources, both financial and human.
On Sept. 20, the Northwest Indiana non-profit sector will get its first glimpse of the Indiana University Northwest Non-Profit Institute, which was established earlier this year in cooperation between the IU Northwest Center for Regional Excellence and GRANTS Inc., with a three-year, $150,000 grant from LAUW. The NPI’s mission is to establish an informational clearinghouse and professional development center for Northwest Indiana non-profits, someplace where board and staff members and volunteers can learn how to apply for grants, increase revenue, and maximize their fundraising and operational effectiveness.
Along with GRANTS Inc., a non-profit group that seeks to improve the fundraising skills of area non-profits, additional NPI partners include the Northwest Indiana Quality of Life Council and the IU Northwest School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Members of several Lake County non-profits and funding providers serve on the NPI advisory board.
The Sept. 20 event isn’t just the NPI’s coming-out party. It’s also a key opportunity for area non-profit board members and personnel to network with each other, exchange ideas, and learn which of the NPI’s services can benefit them.
Patti Lundberg, executive director of the IU Northwest Center for Regional Excellence, emphasized that the NPI has been developed as a resource, a catalyst for increased organization and development among the myriad groups that provide crucial services for Northwest Indiana.
“The Center can’t do any of this itself. We’re just the coordinating function, the administrative function,” Lundberg said. “We don’t have all the answers, but we do have the capacity to bring people together in the same room and see how they can develop their own resources, and maybe help these organizations to collaborate with each other and get a bigger grant, instead of everybody doing their own little thing.”
There are more than 2,000 501-c3 organizations in Lake County, and an estimated 500 of those are located in Gary. As of 2004, Lake County non-profits accounted for 6 percent of Indiana’s entire non-profit sector, but they served 8 percent of the state’s population, according to the LAUW report.
The study also noted that Northwest Indiana’s unemployment rate remains consistently higher than Indiana’s overall rate, meaning the demand for social services is even greater. And, a majority of non-profits surveyed in the LAUW report did not participate in any state or federal grant programs, even though area 501-c3s had seen a decline in charitable donations.
Adding to these challenges is the reality, outlined in a joint 2005 report on Indiana non-profits by the Indiana University Center for Philanthropy and the School of Public and Environmental Policy, that charitable organizations in Lake County are not sufficiently organized or networked to take advantage of their large numbers. Groups that offer similar or related services can often join forces to qualify for larger grants or develop cooperative relationships. But the 2005 report found too little linkage between non-profits here.
“What the Non-Profit Institute wants to do is bring everyone together so that we can make these links (between organizations),” said Sandra Bowie, project manager for NPI. “It’s putting the pieces of a puzzle together for the community to make the community whole.”
Another NPI goal is to match 501-c3s with local volunteers who’d like to help them. Martinez said one problem with the current state of non-profits is that there’s no central organizing function in Lake County that matches the county’s considerable volunteer base to the organizations that can best utilize them.
“We’re not capitalizing on our human resources. We don’t have any connectivity between the people who are willing to give of their time, skills and talent, and the organizations that can put those people to use,” Martinez said.
“Let’s say you’re an expert in tennis, and you want to teach tennis to underprivileged kids at 4 p.m. on Fridays,” he continued. “That’s great. But I have no information on where your skills can best be used. And you’ve got to get the organizations volunteer-ready. If they don’t give you an award, a certificate, a thank-you, some kind of recognition, or at least a pat on the back, you might not ever volunteer again. So there’s a lot of preparation that goes into this.”
As part of the Sept. 20 event, NPI staff will hold classes on the use of Grantstation, an online grant database that aids groups in the search for resources. One advantage of this software, which the NPI is also working to make available to local public libraries, is that its search criteria can be narrowed to meet budgetary and other specifications of particular non-profits, making the search results more useful and concise. Lundberg said that applying for grants is an intimidating process, anyway, without the added hassle of sorting through thousands of non-relevant grants.
“The first time you go for a grant, it’s pretty daunting,” Lundberg said. “The 10th time, it’s still pretty daunting, but at least you know how to use the software.”
Bowie emphasized that grants alone cannot sustain most non-profits these days. She said part of the NPI’s mission is to encourage 501-c3s to look beyond traditional donations in their quest for revenue.
“Grants cannot be a sole source of revenue for non-profits in this day and time,” Bowie said. “Many non-profits believe that because they are non-profits, they cannot have a revenue stream. And that’s not accurate.”
As for the NPI’s own funding beyond the LAUW grant, Martinez said the plan is to keep a small percentage of any successful grants the NPI assists local groups in writing and applying for. Also, the Institute will collect participation fees for training seminars.
For the IU Northwest Center for Regional Excellence, participation in this venture was a chance to make good on the University’s commitment to community involvement and improvement, one of the basic tenets of its Shared Vision. For its part, the University is donating the NPI’s operating space at the Center’s offices in the Library Conference Center, and it’s also donating some staff positions and coordination support.
Lundberg said the NPI is about helping non-profit groups match their passion for a given cause with the organizational and development resources necessary to meet their goals.
“People have a passion for the things they need to do, but passion won’t sustain the organization,” she said. “Lou has a real vision for how this can work, and we hope we can make it happen. We’ll be evaluating our effectiveness.”
NPI officials emphasized that the Institute’s resources are available not just to Lake County non-profits but also to organizations throughout Northwest Indiana, and they encouraged groups from Porter, LaPorte and other regional counties to attend the open house, as well.
Sixty vendors and several hundred attendees are expected at the NPI open house and resource fair, which will be held from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. on the second floor of the IU Northwest Library Conference Center. Parking for the event will be available in the Savannah Center parking lot along 33rd Avenue west of Broadway, and in other surrounding lots as designated.
For more information about the Non-Profit Institute, contact Sandra Bowie at (219) 981-5673, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.