At the Vermont Digital Economy Project, we know that a connected community is a resilient community. While we’ve been focusing on using digital tools to build networks within a community, it’s just as important for local nonprofits to recognize the power of off-line networks and coalitions.
Many communities have a Chamber of Commerce, an organization designed to promote the interests of and sharing resources between businesses, and Woodstock has taken this one step further, offering a similar organization for nonprofits. In the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, nonprofit leaders founded the Woodstock Area Nonprofit Network. While still only a few years old, the network is serving as a platform to assist local organizations in volunteer recruitment, skill building, coordinating events, and fundraising. Together the members of the network are building more resilient organizations capable of capturing and leveraging resources for their community.
Here is their story as told by Ron Miller, a board member of Sustainable Woodstock and owner of Shiretown Books.
Nonprofit organizations provide vital services to any well-functioning community, supporting the arts, education, public health, recreation, conservation and many other tangible and intangible goods. Woodstock and surrounding towns benefit from the work of many strong local organizations headed by capable and hardworking directors.
A year ago, in the midst of Irene recovery efforts, some of these leaders, including Jill Davies and Denise Lyons of Sustainable Woodstock and Jackie Fischer of Ottauquechee Community Partnership, began discussing ways to better coordinate volunteers. With encouragement from state representative Alison Clarkson, who was also helping to organize the community response to Irene, they reached out to directors of other organizations. The ensuing conversations led to the creation of the Woodstock Area Nonprofit Network (NPN), an ongoing forum for working together on volunteer coordination as well as other common concerns.
NPN members gather monthly to discuss issues of fundraising, board development, community needs, and communication with the public. They occasionally bring in experts to learn about best practices in the nonprofit field; last week, Marty Jacobs of the Thetford firm Systems in Sync explained how boards of trustees can most effectively support the work of their organizations. The network has posted online a shared calendar, along with minutes of its meetings, to keep member organizations informed.
Sherry Thornburg, executive director of the Ottauquechee Health Foundation, calls NPN “an opportunity to share resources, to learn, to be in tune with what’s going on in the community and other nonprofits.” The head of the Thompson Senior Center, Deanna Jones, says that NPN members participate in working groups addressing the core issues they’ve identified—volunteers, fundraising, professional development, communication, and sustainability. One fundraising issue, for example, is “donor fatigue” resulting from the number of organizations looking for financial support in what is a relatively small community. By collaborating, NPN members hope to reduce the stress on individual donors.
Working together in this way does not come easily to small, busy organizations. “It takes so much to run our own organizations,” says Fischer, “that it’s not always a priority to reach out in other ways.” Having worked with many communities, Jacobs agrees, and observes that it usually takes a crisis to bring people together, as Irene did in this case. In the Upper Valley, though, there is an established culture of community involvement and collaboration. Working together enables organizations to step outside their “silos”—their own specific concerns and practices—to appreciate the interconnected issues and needs of the community at large. It is very encouraging to see area nonprofits cooperating in this way. All of us in the community should give them our thanks and support.