Through a two-way mirror, Byron Manering sees into a room that is an epitome of childhood.
A kid-sized table sits in the center of the small, brightly colored space. Painted flowers leap across the carpet and onto the walls.
From Manering’s position on the other side of the mirror, counselors use electronic microphones and headsets to “coach” parents during one-on-one interactions with their children.
It’s difficult to convince parents to let someone talk them through playtime step-by-step, Manering said, but a greater challenge for those who work at Brigid Collins is accepting they can only go so far to address the problems they’re determined to solve – problems with roots tugging at deeper societal plights.
“All we have is influence,” said Manering, executive director of the nonprofit Brigid Collins Family Support Center. “Our biggest challenge is to be a strong influence.”
Roughly one-tenth of the American workforce is employed in the nonprofit sector, according to the Urban Institute, a Washington D.C.-based research center.
The directors who oversee the sector face an array of challenges, some similar to the struggles faced by their counterparts in for-profit companies, but others unique to the nonprofit world.
Managing a nonprofit organization involves constant attention on raising money while at the same time ensuring the fulfillment a public-service mission.
When the economy struggles, that balancing act becomes more difficult.
Mauri Ingram, president and CEO of the Whatcom Community Foundation, a grant-funding organization that acts as a hub for Whatcom County’s nonprofit network, said the recession has brought an increased demand for local nonprofit services.
The rising need has been coupled with a drop in nonprofit funding from cash-strapped state and federal governments, leading many organizations to restructure, she said.
“The recession has meant for a number of organizations that they’ve had to genuinely re-think their business model,” Ingram said.
“For a lot of them, if they did not have any donor base, they’ve really had to start from scratch.”
Money not the only cure
Brigid Collins, founded in 1990, uses family-centered, evidence-based therapy practices to work toward its mission of ending child abuse in all its forms.
For such delicate work, a major expense for the nonprofit is providing training for its employees, Manering said. But when it comes to raising funds, Manering said simply finding donors willing to write checks is half the process.
To make a lasting impact, Manering has begun focusing on getting community members personally invested in the organization. That way donors are not just money founts, they are active supporters who can provide experience and resources to aid the organization’s mission, he said.
Colleen Haggerty, a program director for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Washington, a nonprofit that pairs children in need with adult mentors, agreed that while organizations are usually hard-hit for money, active participation from supporters can do much more.
“It goes without saying that every nonprofit needs more money, but something that’s more important is a compassionate community about mentoring,” Haggerty said.
Fundraising models shift
Although raising money is not the only function of a nonprofit director, it is still a vital one.
Fundraising events, such as auctions and charity golf tournaments, are typically seen as the classic method for a nonprofit to connect with loyal donors and meet potential new ones.
However, as organizations shift their structures to survive through the economic downturn, some directors believe changes to the event-heavy model are necessary.
Ingram of the Whatcom Community Foundation said she thinks nonprofit directors can sometimes get “addicted” to events.
While a charity benefit or an auction can serve an important function in raising an organization’s visibility, planning events is time-intensive and itself requires money, Ingram said.
The foundation has begun encouraging Whatcom County nonprofits to incorporate other fundraising methods, including trimming down annual event schedules in favor of meeting with donors face-to-face.
“Personal connections are really the most important,” Ingram said.
Manering’s fundraising strategy places a strong emphasis on events.
Brigid Collins’ annual auction attracts major donors and helps the nonprofit meet with community members who have connections or expertise that can help the organization fulfill its mission.
Though he does admit fundraisers can be resource drainers, Manering said he thinks events still have value.
Events important to raising awareness
Stan Chronister, a member of the board of directors of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Washington, said for organizations that lack visibility in the community, fundraisers are important.
Chronister, who also helps organize events for Big Brothers Big Sisters, including the nonprofit’s upcoming charity golf classic, said he got involved with the nonprofit after his youngest child left home for college.
He chose to work with the mentoring organization because he felt it was a place that would allow him to make a major difference in a young person’s life, he said.
In many ways, fundraisers help recognize the organization’s donors, some who are also mentors themselves, and give the nonprofit a chance to say thank you to those who lend support, he said.
“The intent of it is also to sort of be a reward for our donors,” Chronister said.
Bliss Goldstein, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters, said her greatest challenge is fueled by her organization’s lack of visibility.
Since mentoring takes place during one-on-one interactions between mentors and children, known within the organization as “bigs” and “littles,” Goldstein said it’s difficult to spread public awareness of the organization based on its activities alone.
The nonprofit currently has 356 mentors paired up with children in need. Goldstein said nearly 9 out of 10 children in their program, many of whom come from troubled families or have behavioral issues, end up as high school graduates.
“When we’re doing our job well, we’re invisible,” she said.
Right places for the right people
Dave Finet, executive director of the Opportunity Council in Bellingham, said his biggest challenge is one of a different stripe.
The Opportunity Council, a community action agency that operates a wide variety of programs designed to aid low-income people in Whatcom, Island and San Juan counties, is one of the region’s largest nonprofits.
The organization has about 150 full-time employees, and about 30 additional part-time workers.
Keeping tabs on everything his employees are doing is the most difficult part of his job, Finet said.
The real challenge comes from deciding the right time to step in and guide, and when it’s better to let team members handle things on their own, he said.
Finet said those who work in the nonprofit sector need to have a sincere desire to help people.
Sue Sharpe, executive director of St. Luke’s Foundation, which makes grants to health-related organizations, said she’s seen people from a variety of backgrounds succeed in the nonprofit sector.
Knowing how to work with volunteer bases usually made up of people with varying skill sets is a valuable trait for nonprofit employees, Sharpe said.
Learning how to manage and maximize volunteers’ efforts and skills is the major challenge, she said.
“I think it takes people that know how to work with a diverse group of volunteers,” she said.
At Brigid Collins, Byron Manering said although nonprofit work is fast-paced and difficult, it can have intrinsic rewards for the people involved.
The most important thing for nonprofit employees, particularly those involved in social work such as family or child counseling, is to realize that while the people they help grow and change, nonprofit workers must learn to do the same themselves, he said.
“You only get as good in this work as you make your own personal changes and personal growth,” he said.
Photos by Evan Marczynski