Measures of Success
Report Touts Economic Impact of Region’s Nonprofit OrganizationsMany different voices speaking as one.
That’s the goal of the Human Service Forum (HSF), a Western Mass. organization that provides a public platform for a wide variety of human-service nonprofits.
That catch-all term covers literally dozens of different types of agencies, providing services ranging from health care to early education; substance-abuse treatment to homeless shelters; youth recreation to career services.
But when people think of the good work done by these agencies, they often don’t consider the economic impact they have on the region, through job opportunities, local spending, and taxes. Kathleen Dowd, director of the HSF, thinks that should change.
“We felt the need to get our voice out there and talk about how we contribute as businesses, and about the impact we have as employers,” Dowd said. That’s why the Forum commissioned the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) to research those influences.
The report that emerged from that study, “The Economic Impact of Human, Social, and Health Service Organizations in the Pioneer Valley,” may have a cumbersome name, but its findings cut right to the point, and make the case that human-, social-, and health-services (HSHS) agencies do more than help people — they dramatically lift the region’s entire economy.
The numbers are striking. In 2009, HSHS organizations in the Pioneer Valley employed one out of every five workers in the region, paid $1.6 billion in wages, posted revenues of close to $4 billion, and recorded expenditures also around $4 billion.
Those numbers have risen sharply over the past decade. The total number of HSHS nonprofits in the region increased by 18% between 2000 and 2009, and annual per-capita expenditures of those organizations rose from just under $2,000 to more than $2,700 over the same period — and more than twice that total in Hampden County (see chart on page 11).
The sector is also growing more quickly in the Pioneer Valley than statewide. HSHS organizations in the region increased spending by 46% from 2000 to 2009, compared to 40% for all of Massachusetts. Those spending levels have a significant impact on area communities, as nonprofits typically spend more than 75% of their dollars locally.
“We’re part of the fabric of the whole community, and you really can’t separate us,” said Linda Williams, executive director of the Springfield-based Mental Health Assoc. (MHA), a Forum member. “People say our workers touch just about every life in Western Mass. — but I would maintain that we touch every life.”
Spreading the Word
Williams stressed that the PVPC report is not an end in itself.
“This isn’t a one-time deal where we just throw out a study,” she said. “This is a campaign of eduation from those of us providing these services. It’s a multi-year effort, and we need to continue the momentum.”
Part of that effort is a campaign to educate the public and get them talking about the importance of HSHS nonprofits — and, in time, increase support, financial and otherwise, for their services. To that end, the HSF tasked Paul Robbins, president of Wilbraham-based Paul Robbins Associates, to cultivate marketing opportunities.
“We brought Paul in to help us really distill all this data that the Planning Commission was so good at finding,” Williams said. “Some of it tends to be a bit dry, but we wanted to make sure we had the talking points, the bullet points we could articulate, not just to the general community, but legislators and people we do business with.”
One of those opportunities is the Forum’s annual legislative reception, scheduled for Jan. 20 at the Knights of Columbus in Chicopee.
“We’ll actually see legislators sitting at the table with constituents from various organizations,” she said. “It puts our work in perspective for them. We’re voters, and we use this time to get in front of our legislators.”
The reception, like the PVPC report, is a way to distill many different voices in the HSHS world into one clear message, Williams added.
“Even though we call ourselves human-service agencies and organizations, we’re very different, and for us to speak with a common voice is very important. This [reception] is a vehicle I’m passionate about. Whether it’s mental health or disabilities, elderly services, or education, it’s important for us to have a common voice.”
And the economic value of those nonprofits is the message that needs to emerge, Dowd said.
“Many of our member organizations and businesses focus on their mission and get a little tunnel vision,” she told BusinessWest. “Over the next couple of years, we’ll produce a speakers’ bureau to educate the business community and local chambers, with this big-picture idea that we’re contributors and businesses as well as having a social profit.”
She added that the report is intended to stress the contributions of non-health-related agencies that sometimes get lost when people think of Western Mass. as a strong region for ‘eds and meds.’ “It’s known widely that health care businesses have a very strong workforce, but I think that’s lesser-known about human- and social-services organizations.
“We’re contributors; we have a vital workforce,” Dowd added. “We do professional development and provide career pathways for our peers.”
Nonprofits boast “some of the most creative business people I’ve ever met,” Robbins added. “They have to be creative and inventive in how they raise money and manage their resources.”
Although the human aspect of their work is critical, Dowd said, “at the same time, not-for-profit does not mean we do not run a financially sound business. We do — and we’re a large, vital force in terms of workforce and economic impact, in terms of multipliers like real estate, insurance products we purchase, taxes we pay. We do that every single day.”
She said she prefers the term not-for-profit, rather than nonprofit, when describing HSHS work, because the latter can give the impression that agencies aren’t trying to bring in dollars. The most effective organizations, she said, keep the funds rolling in, even during a recession, but they pump that money back into the organization, rather than lining the pockets of a CEO or stockholders.
“It’s not either-or,” Dowd said of the difference between for-profit businesses and not-for-profit agencies. “It’s not about pointing fingers, them against us. It’s not about making a profit, but what we do with that profit. We provide services as a business, and we have to operate with sound business principles while providing a mission. We’re not nonprofit; we’re not for profit. That’s a capital ‘for’ in the middle.”
“I would say Western Mass. is a region that focuses on community,” said Elizabeth Sullivan, special projects coordinator for the Mental Health Assoc. “With the closures of Belchertown State School, Northampton State Hospital, and, in the very near future, Monson Developmental Center, we’ve needed to establish human-services organizations to address those needs.”
The aging of the population is also a factor, she added; people are living longer today than in past decades, but often with a more acute need for health and social services.
In addition, Williams said, there’s less of a stigma these days attached to seeking the kind of support HSHS agencies offer. “People are more open to it, whether they’re looking to get help for a husband or wife, an elder, a child, or someone with a disability. That’s come through years of education, communication, and community service.”
Even with the success not-for-profits have had with growing their services and hiring more workers, communication still suffers at times, which is why the PVPC report is so important, said Molly Goren-Watts, principal planner/manager of the commission’s Regional Information and Policy Center.
“It seems that one of the major limits of nonprofits is that you have funding coming from a specific source or for a specific service,” she said. “It’s allocated for you to provide a specific service, and there’s usually not extra money built into the budget for marketing.”
Williams said it will take a cooperative effort to change that.
“It’s so good for the Human Service Forum to bring us all together under this umbrella and bring a common voice and make the message of our contributions heard,” she said. “It’s hard to do that with one voice when we’re all going in different directions. The Human Service Forum has been around for 25 years now, and it’s able to provide that support for all our organizations that we couldn’t achieve separately.”
Sullivan agreed. “This provides us with a forum to discuss what we have in common with the businesses in the community,” she said. “We have not really engaged in that discussion, so that dialogue begins now.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]