A Primer on Nonprofit Organizations

By Gita Gulati-Partee
Chapel Hill, NC (Summer 2001)- Although municipalities and nonprofits often work to address common concerns, sometimes there is a disconnect. This article serves as an introduction into the nonprofit world for municipalities, and answers basic questions from ‘what is a nonprofit’ to strategic questions such as ‘how to work with nonprofits to stretch tax dollars further.’

Nonprofits are so entwined in communities that it is easy to miss the impact they have on daily life. They deliver services needed in the community, provide avenues for citizens to get involved as volunteers, serve as testing grounds for solutions to community problems, develop public policy options for government to consider, educate the public on issues facing society, and provide structures for citizen participation.
The public often thinks of nonprofits as serving needy people- and they do. But they do much more than that. They help connect the community to arts and culture, assist in ensuring public safety, help with economic development, and provide mental health and other social services. Nonprofits can help build community in a way that governments or private businesses cannot. Since no person or entity can gain financially from a nonprofit’s activities, everyone collaborates for the public purpose that the group is organized to serve. The small size of most nonprofits keeps the staff and volunteers close to the people whom they serve in a way that may be more difficult for a large government agency.
Nonprofits are engrained in the community in many ways. Their missions serve diverse constituents and provide opportunities for volunteers to improve their neighborhoods. They provide business for vendors, jobs for local individuals, positive stories in the media, outlets for foundations and donors to implement good works, and models of success for replication in Congress and other municipalities.
Governments are generally responsible for the broad goal of serving the public at large. Nonprofits usually serve particular groups of citizens, so they can become specialists in that area and stay close to the needs of their constituents. Local governments can capitalize on that expertise by seeking information from nonprofits for program development or community problem-solving.
Local governments and nonprofits independently gather information on their community, and both can learn and benefit from sharing relevant findings with each other. For example, if employees of the court system see an increase in domestic violence cases, they might find it helpful to talk to staff of battered women’s shelters or advocacy nonprofits to ask if they are experiencing the same trends, and to explore causes and solutions. Such partnering and communication allow both the nonprofit and the local government to pool human and financial resources for the benefit of the community. Through greater interaction, government and nonprofit leaders will see that they share goals and challenges, and that together they can serve the common good.
Related Resources:
A Primer on Nonprofit Organizations