I'm going to give you a word, and when you read it I want you to let it turn into an image in your mind. Once you read it, stop reading for a few moments. Pause. Close your eyes if you have to.
Okay, here it is: Nonprofit.
When you think about that word--nonprofit--what image does your mind create? Soup lines? Homeless shelters? Disease?
Not bad. Not bad at all. There are some wonderful area charities that specialize in delivering food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, and medicine to the sick. These organizations provide necessary services to people and families in dire straits.
Now, what else? Think some more. Pause. Close your eyes again if you have to.
Anything? No? That's fine. Most folks, except for those people who work in the nonprofit world, would have a hard time coming up with much else. Before I transitioned to the nonprofit sector, my appreciation for those organizations and what they did was ridiculously shallow. I mean paper-thin shallow. Most everyone reading this is probably light-years ahead of where I was then.
I can safely say that since I joined the nonprofit sector two years ago, every day has presented me with new learning opportunities. These experiences have taken many forms, each one revealing new contours of this city and the various people who live here. Some lessons have been painfully digested, while other have been encouraging and inspiring.
Three revelations continue to blow me away when I see them in action. The first is that Chattanooga has a legion of nonprofit folks working in the trenches every day to create a stronger city. The second is that these people are championing a myriad of often-overlooked causes that, if unaddressed, would leave countless neighbors to slip through the cracks.
Most every day, these 501(c)(3) professionals are helping adults earn their GED's, interpreting at school parent-teacher conferences where parents may not speak English, counseling victims of domestic violence, helping launch new businesses, providing tuition for first-generation college students, and so much more.
That leads me to the third revelation: Though this help immediately benefits the clients accessing those services, that aid also delivers a strong return on investment to our entire community, including you and me.
Last week, Sheila Moore of Chattanooga's Center for Nonprofits told me that -- if foundations, civic associations, trusts, and religious institutions are excluded -- there are nearly 750 nonprofits operating in Hamilton County. Very few of these organizations offer "Band-aid," or quick-fix, services. Most are working to empower individuals and families to better the whole of their lives. And while hungry bellies need to be filled straightaway, it's the sustainability programs that better our city over the long haul.
While the downstream impacts of helping people better their lives are massive, nonprofits also deliver more immediate benefits to the community. In our conversation, Sheila cited a study recently commissioned by Nashville's Center for Nonprofit Management that showed 15 percent of that region's workforce is employed by nonprofits. Those organizations also contribute five percent to the GDP. Simply put, nonprofits are significant drivers of local economy. And though we don't have any such study here in Chattanooga, Sheila believes our numbers to be very similar. I'd agree with her.
The nonprofit funding landscape has changed here in Chattanooga over the past decade. There aren't nearly as many big donors out there as there used to be. It'll take a lot of us giving what we can to help move this city along meaningfully. Whether it's $10 or $10,000, I encourage you to find a nonprofit here in Chattanooga to support as 2013 draws to a close. We'll all benefit from your gift, as we all live in the community your gift is going to strengthen.
David Martin manages development and communications at La Paz Chattanooga. He was the recipient of the 2013 "Civic Impact Award" by the Young Professionals Association of Chattanooga.