|Times-Mirror Staff Photo/Beverly Denny
Loudoun Interfaith Relief volunteers quickly pack bags of food for clients waiting in the lobby July 29.|
On one side of the counter dividing Loudoun Interfaith Relief, men and women sit in a bare room, waiting to receive the bags of food they depend on to help feed their families. On the other side, determined volunteers and staff gather requested items from the piles of food crates surrounding them.
Some days, they're able to meet the needs of their customers with little worry, but their stocks often fluctuate. When it dwindles, the stress increases. As the supply depends primarily on donations from grocery stores, LIR can do little to control when or how much they receive.
Though many people benefit from LIR and other nonprofit organizations' services, few are familiar with the nonprofits' complicated challenges.
In some regards, nonprofit organizations operate similarly to their for-profit counterparts: they must bring in revenue and they have customer expectations and strict accounting practices.
However, they also face unique obstacles. While the public rarely views behind-the-scenes operations of nonprofits, it's their success in overcoming tremendous business challenges that creates community benefits for which the organizations are frequently praised.
As of 2010, the last time the Johns Hopkins for Civil Society Studies released data on Virginia nonprofits, Loudoun had 412 nonprofit organizations filing a 990 form. The number jumps to 1,300, the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce Nonprofit Initiative estimates, if smaller nonprofit organizations, which aren't required to file a 990 form, are counted.
Each nonprofit provides a different service to the community, whether serving as a food pantry, hosting art galleries or building homes for low-income families. Their cumulative financial benefit is significant, with $1.5 billion in revenue in the 2010 report.
The nonprofit double-edged sword
Bonnie Inman has been the executive director of LIR for nine years and throughout her employment her biggest lesson has been 'always prepare for the worst.'
"It's hard to sometimes predict what your days going to be like," Inman said. "You can't predict how much food a grocery store is going to give you. You can't predict when somebody's going to do a food drive. You're very dependent on other people to help you with the bottom line."
For LIR, preparing for the worst means having monetary reserves for when the organization is low on supplies. They will often purchase two of their most important items – milk and meat – if they feel they're at risk of running out.
"We try to do our best to make sure that if the worst happens that we're prepared for it, but at the end of the day it's not like you always have enough resources to go out and buy all of the food that you need, there's no way we could do that," Inman said.
Last summer, running out of food increasingly seemed like a potential reality.
"I remember that our food supplies were just scary low. It just seemed to happen in a short period of time," Inman said. "We put a plea out and people responded and we were able to get through."
This risk looms for any organization that depends on the generosity of others, making donations of time and money the double-edged sword of nonprofits.
Jeff Dee, executive director of Loudoun Habitat for Humanity, relies on financial support from the community, but it can be a hindrance when conducting business.
"Someone may say, 'I have a piece of land I can sell you.' There are times you might have to pass up on [that] project because you don't have the resources available to move quickly to secure [it]," Dee said.
Beyond needing financial support to complete a project, Dee relies on volunteer help. A core team of paid staff helps with day-to-day work, but volunteers make up the board of directors, construction site teams and project teams.
In addition to finding general help, Dee must find volunteers who have specialized expertise. For example, Loudoun Habitat needs volunteers to create architectural plans and finding a qualified person with the time to help isn't easy.
Even though there are associated challenges, without volunteers Loudoun Habitat's work would be impossible.
"There are far more volunteers than paid staff. Last year I believe we had 11,000 volunteer hours contributed to the affiliate. There's no way our work could be done without volunteers," Dee said.
Inman determined that at LIR volunteer hours make up an equivalent of five-and-a-half full-time employees. Only with the many volunteer hours in addition to her staff can she keep the doors open.
A passionate, dedicated staff
While volunteers are vital to the operation, the regular staff are the heart of nonprofits.
Unable to offer competitive wages that for-profits rely on to entice and retain employees, nonprofits must find different ways to accomplish this goal.
The central attraction to working at a nonprofit is the philanthropic mission. At the end of the day, employees know they made a positive impact in their community.
Altruism is not, however, always enough to attract qualified candidates. Nonprofits set themselves apart in other ways.
Inman says the supportive environment at LIR is a huge asset. During her time as executive director, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Rather than having to worry about her job on top of medical issues, she was able to leave and know the board of directors and her co-workers would take over while she was away.
"I think that one of the most amazing things about working for this organization is that you do feel like you're taken care of, you do feel like someone's got your back all the time," Inman said.
Loudoun Habitat offers its employees flexible schedules and competitive benefits. Offering strong benefits might seem like a financial burden, but Dee says the organization is savvy at finding the best deals, due to the necessity of lowering expenses.
These advantages are mostly supplementary. Individuals involved in nonprofit work tend to be intrinsically motivated.
"One of my staff was in the peace corps for two years, another one was in AmeriCorps VISTA for two years, another on the staff volunteers at her children's schools a lot, another has helped out in the community," Dee said. "I think that tells you why they might be willing to take lower salaries."
Dee and Inman both say they have little employee turnover. Their policies of respecting and successfully helping their employees creates an appealing work environment. If a nonprofit fails to do this, there's little chance of holding onto qualified workers.
Keeping the doors open
The relationship between nonprofit organizations operating in the same community is two-sided. Though they all compete for a limited pool of funds, the executive directors often work together.
Four years ago, the establishment of the Nonprofit Initiative, currently co-chaired by Maristeve Bradley and Marybeth Muir, increased the ties between Loudoun nonprofits.
The committee, which is a subsection of the Loudoun Chamber of Commerce, brings nonprofits together to help connect them to the for-profit business community.
"A number of voices is bigger than one voice. It gives us more of a forum to represent nonprofits to the for-profit community," said Bradley.
Besides creating a larger collective presence, the Nonprofit Initiative offers several advantages to local organizations: they host keynote speakers, put together classes for nonprofits and compile information to show the private business community the value of nonprofits.
Recently, the organization hosted a speaker who addressed ways nonprofits could make themselves standout to potential corporate sponsors.
"One of the key takeaways for me ... [was] do anything you can to collaborate," Bradley said.
Bradley, who is also the marketing director of Art Square, believes "you're ahead of the game if you collaborate." She sees other local art galleries, such as Arts in the Village, not as potential competitors, rather as positive additions to the art community.
Still, nonprofits must fund their mission, which means trying to make their organization as attractive as possible to donors. When looking to contribute funds to a positive cause, local residents want to make sure they choose the best option. Nonprofit executive directors compete to steer attention toward their cause.
Though Loudoun Cares Executive Director Andy Johnston is often thought of as a "guru" of collaboration because he works to bring nonprofits together, he acknowledges there is an unavoidable element of competition in running a business.
"We all have to meet our bottom lines. It's not a dog-eat-dog competition by any means, but certainly we're all reaching out to some of the same funders and those funders have limited resources so we're all doing our best to put our best foot forward," said Johnston.
Nonetheless, Johnston feels that he and every other nonprofit director in the community is eager to help one another. They understand the inherent difficulties nonprofits face and work together to alleviate that as much as possible.
Even with the help that nonprofit executive directors offer each other, the job is tolling.
The financial reward is minimal for the work. The stress of relying on donated funds can be overwhelming. The nonprofit career route is not suited for everyone, but all agree it's fulfilling.
"There are days when you're just so exhausted from listening to so many people and the hardships that they're coping with and sometimes a million different things can happen that you never expected." Inman said.
"It is very draining but ... there's not one of us that when we leave and go home that we haven't felt like we've done something important. That's what makes me come to work every day."
|Times-Mirror Staff Photo/Beverly Denny
Bonnie Inman is the executive director of Loudoun Interfaith Relief. The Leesburg food pantry served 75,000 individuals almost 790,000 meals last year.|