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«The Capacity Challenges of Nonprofit & Voluntary Organizations in Rural Ontario Susan Stowe Cathy Barr Working in Partnership © 2005, Imagine Canada ...»

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Sometimes it’s hard to convince people to take us as seriously. I think there’s a little bit of a perception that rural means lack of expertise, lack of modern thinking. I know even when we’re dealing with people from Belleville or Kingston sometimes there is a bit of an attitude of condescension there that maybe rural organizations aren’t as up to date. In some cases, as much as I hate to say it, in some of the smaller areas it might be true. We’ve even dealt with that. But, at the same time, we need to have the same access. We need to be taken seriously.

Another challenge mentioned by several organization representatives is the amount of time it takes to prepare a grant application. Each funder expects their grant application to be presented in a different way. The lack of consistency in the criteria or the preparation of grant applications means that organizations need to invest a lot of resources into preparing applications rather than providing services. Although this problem is not unique to rural organizations, it may be a greater challenge for these organizations because they tend to have fewer staff.

Fundraising Most rural nonprofit and voluntary organizations rely on fundraising to some degree. Smaller organizations and those in smaller communities tend to focus on events such as bingos, lotteries, cookbook and bake sales, auctions, festivals, theatre productions, walks, and golf tournaments.

Larger organizations and those in larger communities are more likely to approach corporations.

For many organizations, fundraising is an annual event. For others, it occurs on an ad hoc basis.

The Capacity Challenges of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations in Rural Ontario 8 What we have done in the past is hold a community charity walk. Another thing that we do is we run a summer youth theatre program every year and the sale of the tickets for the production is another fundraising venture that we do, where we actually hold a show at our local community theatre. We’ve held a couple of other similar things like a fundraising auction, where we’ve gotten contributions from our local businesses and held an auction with them.

The bingos are regular, so they happen all the time. With the other events, it’s just depending on our deficit and what we need to have covered and what programs we have funded, depending on what the services we’re offering.

According to our interviewees, it is difficult to raise funds in rural areas because many people living in these communities are poor or will only give to causes that affect their own families (e.g., sports and recreation). Organizations that provide social services such as women’s shelters, youth help lines, or drug abuse rehabilitation find it especially difficult to raise funds in rural areas.

We are a small community and a tapped-out community. People don’t want to be part of an ongoing base-funding structure, which they end up having to do. Also, some people don’t support women’s shelters. They just think it’s not as worthwhile as a little kids’ hockey team, and so they’re not as apt to give.

Smaller organizations in rural areas also find it difficult to compete with local hospitals and larger, better-known organizations, such as the United Way, which are able to carry out more sophisticated and larger-scale fundraising campaigns. There is also a perception that many of the funds that are collected from rural communities during large fundraising campaigns are not distributed to the communities from which the money is collected.

Funders’ understanding of rural nonprofit organizations Most of the interviewees thought that funders – e.g., governments, foundations, corporations, individual donors – do not understand the needs of rural nonprofit organizations unless the person in charge of distributing the funds is from a rural area. In some cases, funders do not recognize the ability and professionalism of rural nonprofit organizations. In other cases, the person setting up the criteria for the funding is in an urban area where the increased costs faced by rural nonprofit organizations are not recognized or understood.

What we do costs more, just because of the rural and remote nature, the infrastructure. To travel to and from where services are delivered – all those kinds of things – I don’t think they appreciate that at all because they always talk about “equity funding.” But if you do it by population, you’re cooked, because you have fewer people, but your service delivery costs are much higher.

Strategies for dealing with financial challenges The nonprofit leaders we spoke to told us that their organizations use various strategies to overcome the financial challenges they face. The strategies vary according to the type of The Capacity Challenges of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations in Rural Ontario 9 organization and the sources of funding it receives. The following appear to be the main strategies used by rural organizations to cope with their financial challenges.

1. Evaluation. Evaluation processes are used to examine the resources needed to obtain each type of funding. This allows organizations to determine which source is the least costly and which is likely to yield the highest return on investment. Organizations also use the review process to determine whether programs that are already funded suit their mission.

2. Strategic grant applications. Organizations that apply for grants try to ensure that proposed projects are similar in nature to the projects or programs that they already provide. This strategy is beneficial because it ensures that the organization does not have to spend scarce resources starting up completely new projects.

3. Partnerships. Rural nonprofit organizations in larger communities often create partnerships with other organizations in an attempt to reduce costs or deliver more services for the same cost. This appeared to be easier for organizations situated in less remote communities. For organizations in remote communities, building relationships is more costly and difficult due to geographical distances among organizations and communities.

4. Technology. Video conferencing, high speed Internet, and other information and communications technologies help rural organizations cope with large geographical areas in a cost effective way. Organizations that could afford these technologies reported using them to communicate with other organizations for the purposes of building partnerships, engaging in joint fundraising efforts, etc. Start up and maintenance costs are often quite high, however, so not all organizations are in a position to take advantage of technology.

Human resources capacity

Paid staff The main challenges that rural nonprofit organizations face with regard to paid staff are the inability to pay competitive salaries and the lack of secure funding to hire full-time, permanent employees. Many organizations experience high employee turnover because once employees gain experience and skills they leave the organization for more secure, higher paying positions elsewhere. This challenge is not unique to rural nonprofit organizations, but it may be a greater challenge for them because of the smaller population base they have to draw on.

[Our biggest problem is] the competition to both hire and retain, because our salaries are lower. Most nonprofits have lower salaries than the private sector.

We had a 3% increase this year – the first time in 10 years. So the competition for The Capacity Challenges of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations in Rural Ontario 10 retaining staff as well as attracting them in the first place is difficult. We do a lot of training of people, and then they are hired away.

Recruiting and retaining professional staff and staff with specialized skills can be particularly difficult for rural organizations. Such individuals are often looking not just for full-time, permanent positions with good salaries but also for training and networking opportunities.

The Internet is a useful tool in these circumstances, but distance does make it difficult for employees such as nurses and social workers to attend association meetings and interact with other professionals.

The struggle is to generate the funds you need to attract and compete for the best and brightest, and also to be able to give them the professional training and the stimulation they require is a struggle.

Staff burnout is a problem for some rural organizations. Social services organizations such as women’s shelters, kids help lines, and emergency crisis centres appear to be particularly vulnerable to this problem.

My staff are highly dedicated and committed. They see extremely vulnerable people. They see outrageous injustice and they want to change it and they want to stop it, so it’s very easy to become caught up in crisis and caught up in the tremendous need to change things. So your focus becomes very, very intense. I spend a lot of time trying to get them to relax and take time off, and don’t build up their overtime.

Volunteers The majority of the people we interviewed told us that their organizations rely on volunteers for a large number of tasks, from helping with fundraising events, to office work, to working crisis help lines. Most of them said that, without volunteers, their organizations would not exist.

Without volunteers, we would not have a program. If we didn’t have volunteers, the program wouldn’t exist, because they are the ones that are there on the ground delivering the project to the members.

Recruiting and retaining volunteers is an issue for many rural nonprofit organizations. Many volunteers are looking for short-term assignments, which means that organizations spend a lot of resources on recruitment and training. Another challenge reported is the high costs of police checks required for some types of volunteer activities such as helping with crisis lines and working with children. Although urban organizations also have these problems, rural organizations have a smaller population base to draw on so likely feel the problem more acutely.

I think the biggest challenge now is to retain volunteers. Increasingly, people are looking for very short-term volunteer opportunities, with a definite beginning and end. That becomes tough because then you’re talking more recruitment, more training, more orientation, and that’s a bit of a challenge. But that’s the nature of what’s happening all over the place.

The Capacity Challenges of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations in Rural Ontario 11 The volunteer base is smaller and the skills level is more limited, and there isn’t as broad a base of the population that you can count on. Sometimes two or three highly skilled and very active people do everything. That’s often how it works in small rural communities. But that means that, even if those people are highly skilled and very experienced, you still have a smaller base to move forward with.

Many rural nonprofit organizations report particular problems recruiting and retaining fundraising volunteers. People who live in rural areas and who are willing to volunteer are often already active in several organizations and do not have the time or energy to devote to yearly fundraising campaigns. Moreover, organizations report that they train volunteers to participate in an annual fundraising campaign, and then the next year they are too busy to participate. As a result, organizations are constantly training new volunteers, which is both expensive and timeconsuming.

Structural capacity

Relationships and networks Rural organizations build relationships by inviting people from the community to take part in activities through newsletters, the media, face-to-face meetings, joining committees, etc. and by approaching organizations and linking them together with other organizations.

One way I describe our organization is kind of like a spider web, and we’re somewhere on that spider web, and if you can picture every point in between is another organization. Our board of directors liaises with corporate partners, we liaise with community members, we liaise with students, seniors, labour groups, municipal leaders, politicians, etc.

Interviewees told us that it is beneficial to be in a small community when it comes to building relationships. Volunteers can see the impact of their services on the community, funders can see how the money is being used, and nonprofit organizations from different sub-sectors (e.g., social services, sports and recreation, arts and culture) are more likely to work together.

Our big thing is transparency. People like to see that their dollars are being well spent. Because there are so many individuals in this community with a vested interest in our organization, we invite them to come in and participate in different committees. We invite them to come and do our reviews and see where the money is going, to sit as a volunteer during our campaign fundraising, to help with a special project that we’re doing. And so we’ve opened up our doors to try and build those relationships, and in doing so we’ve brought some individuals in that otherwise may not have felt comfortable, or may not have thought that we wanted them here, and that’s really built relationships.

Another benefit is that people in rural communities tend to know each other. When the director of an organization is grocery shopping, he or she may run into a funder, or someone who works The Capacity Challenges of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations in Rural Ontario 12 for organization that they have partnered with. This allows for more casual communication, which facilitates relationship building.

Relationships with other organizations Relationships with other organizations are the norm for rural nonprofit organizations. Sometimes these relationships are formal partnerships; these are usually formed when two or more organizations work together on a project. Other relationships are more informal, with organizations sharing information, recommending each other’s services, etc.

We have about 80 partnerships that we’ve built up over the last four or five years.

When I first came about five years ago, it was pretty small. There was a negative impression of the centre as it existed in the previous few years, so we really strategically built on those relationships – that we were all in it together, and we try to work together and coordinate our services and structures in our planning.

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