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Good for Santa Barbara

Technology, Staff, Partnerships Among the Keys to Building a Sustainable Nonprofit

Local leaders say it's important for any organization to first ensure its goals are in line with its base and prospective donors

Pam Lewis is chief financial officer of the Hutton Parker Foundation, which has refocused its mission to provide core support to nonprofit organizations. “For us, a successful organization is one that has a strong board, great staff in place, a business plan or strategic plan looking at issues of sustainability,” she says. Click to view larger
Pam Lewis is chief financial officer of the Hutton Parker Foundation, which has refocused its mission to provide core support to nonprofit organizations. “For us, a successful organization is one that has a strong board, great staff in place, a business plan or strategic plan looking at issues of sustainability,” she says. (J.C. Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

It’s one thing to come up with a great idea that may serve a need within the community. It’s quite another to build a sustainable nonprofit organization that will grow and thrive well into the future.

Local standouts in the nonprofit sector say a sound strategy, a dedicated staff, a healthy infrastructure, educated board members and well-defined missions are among some of the factors that can help maintain a healthy organization.

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“Before they go out to raise dollars, not-for-profits need to take a deep breath and make sure they’ve tended to their knitting in advance, that the mission they believe so strongly in is the one the audience they’re approaching understands and has some strong belief in,” said Steve Ainsley, board chairman of both the nonprofit Cottage Health and the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital Foundation.

“If they don’t, they’ll beat their heads against the wall.”

According to Cynder Sinclair, founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect, Santa Barbara County is home to upward of 2,000 nonprofit organizations that produce $1.13 billion in revenue.

Among the longest-running is the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital Foundation, which has just celebrated 125 years. Since opening the hospital doors in 1891, they have never closed.

“The mistake I often see is organizations that believe so strongly in their mission that they don’t take the time to determine if the base they’re seeking to serve feels similarly, or they may discover the needs out there don’t align with their goals,” Ainsley told Noozhawk. “We have to dispel that somehow.”

Judy Taggart, chief operations officer of the Santa Barbara Foundation, emphasizes the importance of technology infrastructure and service to staff. “In a time when nonprofits are being asked to do more with very little, we have to be more efficient with staffing and more efficient with technology,” she says. Click to view larger
Judy Taggart, chief operations officer of the Santa Barbara Foundation, emphasizes the importance of technology infrastructure and service to staff. “In a time when nonprofits are being asked to do more with very little, we have to be more efficient with staffing and more efficient with technology,” she says. (J.C. Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

In its 2013 analysis of grants provided to Santa Barbara County nonprofits, the Weingart Foundation summarized the challenges faced by many nonprofits serving low-income and underserved populations:

“These Santa Barbara organizations struggle to build capacity and meet community demand. Fund development is a challenge, government dollars are unreliable and declining, and unrestricted dollars are difficult to raise. And nonprofits in the northern region have access to far fewer resources and philanthropic dollars than the southern part of the county.”

For Judy Taggart, chief operations officer for the Santa Barbara Foundation, success begins in attention to details the public is unlikely ever to see: technology infrastructure and service to staff.

“In a time when nonprofits are being asked to do more with very little, we have to be more efficient with staffing and more efficient with technology,” she said.

Nonprofits see a high turnover in staff, Taggart said, because the work is stressful and the income isn’t typically high.

“You have a lot of burnout because these people are working really hard,” she said. “It’s really important you provide cross training and professional development, and really take good care of these people because, on both sides of the nonprofit equation, it’s all about the people; it’s one solid, core group of people taking care of other group of people.”

Providing cross training maximizes a staff’s ability to help clients, run operations and better understand the challenges their peers face.

“From an operations point of view, I’m looking, first and foremost, at keeping up to date in technology,” she said. “We know how much more efficient we are when we have all of our technology up and running.”

Cynder Sinclair, CEO of Nonprofit Kinect, is helping the Carpinteria Arts Center raise funds for the purchase and renovation of the former Cajun Kitchen building located next door so it can expand its art class offerings. Click to view larger
Cynder Sinclair, CEO of Nonprofit Kinect, is helping the Carpinteria Arts Center raise funds for the purchase and renovation of the former Cajun Kitchen building located next door so it can expand its art class offerings. (J.C. Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara Foundation, which in turn funds a variety of nonprofit organizations throughout the region, recently completed an information technology audit that resulted in upgrading systems. It was a costly proposal, but one with long-term savings.

“In our case, we had very old hardware,” Taggart explained. “By updating it, we were able to look at new software, which made us more efficient.

“Instead of using three separate programs to accomplish a goal, we were able to streamline, which makes it easier for folks to do their job and save time and, ultimately, that saves us money.”

Taggart noted the importance of achieving a balance between cost savings and building and maintaining the technology that will serve the foundation for the long haul.

“If we fall behind, we miss opportunities that could bring revenues to nonprofits,” she said.

These types of investments are precisely what the Hutton Parker Foundation has been looking for since adjusting its mission direction six years ago.

“We have refocused our efforts to provide core support: supporting organizations with strategic operational support that, hopefully, leads to sustainability and less reliance on funding,” said Pam Lewis, the foundation’s chief financial officer.

“For us, a successful organization is one that has a strong board, great staff in place, a business plan or strategic plan looking at issues of sustainability.”

Steve Ainsley, board chairman of both the nonprofit Cottage Health and the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital Foundation, calls partnerships vital for nonprofit sustainability. “There are numbers of organizations that, while they may not be serving precisely the same purpose, can align their objectives and find symbiotic relationships that will serve both,” he says. Click to view larger
Steve Ainsley, board chairman of both the nonprofit Cottage Health and the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital Foundation, calls partnerships vital for nonprofit sustainability. “There are numbers of organizations that, while they may not be serving precisely the same purpose, can align their objectives and find symbiotic relationships that will serve both,” he says. (J.C. Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

Partnerships within the community and among nonprofits with similar goals also can improve sustainability, particularly in communities such as Santa Barbara where nonprofits are plentiful, Ainsley said.

“The reality is that it’s critically important for these organizations to partner with each other,” he said. “There are numbers of organizations that, while they may not be serving precisely the same purpose, can align their objectives and find symbiotic relationships that will serve both.”

For the past three years, Cottage Hospital has partnered aggressively with the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics, itself born from the merger of three medical clinics. The collaboration has pulled the clinics back from dire financial circumstances while providing more services to patients and avoiding potential backlogs at the hospital.

“Frankly, it would have been a health-care disaster for the community,” Ainsley said.

Uninsured patients without primary-care doctors often turn to emergency rooms for health care, he said. That’s an expensive prospect for community hospitals, which, by law and mission, don’t turn anyone away.

“If they go to a neighborhood clinic, they get better long-term care by establishing a relationship with a physician rather than whoever sees them at the E.R.,” Ainsley said. “So it’s better for the hospital and it’s better for the clinics and it’s better for the patients.

“The long-term benefits accrue to all of us. It’s a partnership we must engage in; it’s the right thing to do, and, frankly, it makes sense for these organizations to do it.”

Such partnerships, he said, are critical, particularly for small organizations.

“It’s high on my list of things nonprofits can and should explore if they want to reach sustainability,” Ainsley said. “They can’t do it alone unless they’re large, and while we probably could do it alone, it doesn’t make sense.

“You must explore these opportunities and reach out and try to partner.”

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Noozhawk contributing writer Jennifer Best can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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