Building Community Capacity to Meet Public Needs

By Lydian Altman-Sauer, Margaret Henderson, and Gordon Whitaker
Chapel Hill, NC (Winter 2005)- Local governments accomplish many public purposes by working through nonprofit organizations such as planting trees, revitalizing neighborhoods, and supporting economic development. It is often more efficient for governments to support nonprofits to deliver such services that are expected by the public than to set up departments and hire personnel themselves.

Some of the reasons governments look to nonprofits include:
Engage citizens more easily: When program success demands public involvement, nonprofits can be more effective than government agencies. Often community organizations have greater credibility than government in fostering healthier behaviors, creating support for neighborhood change, and reaching marginalized populations. Many nonprofits also mobilize volunteers to address public problems. In recruiting and training volunteers and organizing their work, nonprofit organizations increase people’s awareness of public needs and heighten their concern about addressing those needs.
More economical use of public money: Using nonprofits to deliver services can save local governments money. Volunteers provide much of the labor in community nonprofit programs, for example. More often than not, the paid staff members of nonprofits provide their services at below-market rates because of their commitment to the organization’s cause. Most nonprofits also actively solicit contributions of money or materials from private donors.
Greater flexibly: Because nonprofits are private corporations, they have considerably more operational flexibility than local governments. Nonprofits face fewer procedural hurdles in creating, revising, and eliminating positions, hiring and firing staff, buying and selling property, and establishing, changing, and ending programs. Thus, nonprofits often can respond to new opportunities or react to emergencies more quickly than local governments can.
More efficient: Because local government boards represent the entire community, creating majority support for innovative programs sometimes can be difficult. Nonprofits often need not build such widespread agreement before trying out a new approach to address a public problem. Because of their openness and ability to change, nonprofits originate many public programs and develop new ways to deliver them.
Creativity: Nonprofits are used to solving problems with limited funds, and that forces them to be resourceful and entrepreneurial. Their creativity often forms the basis of public policy. Name a well-run government program, and you’ll usually find that it was modeled after something started in the nonprofit sector.
Related Resources:
Building Community Capacity to Meet Public Needs