For most of my four decades in Vermont, I worked for large marketing agencies and nonprofits based in New York City and Washington, traveling from Rutland throughout the country. For most of 2020 and 2021, I hunkered down here, a Zoomer Boomer working remotely, and I have had more opportunities to engage with Vermont’s nonprofits than I have in all my time in Rutland.
To say that I love, or am aware of, all our region’s nonprofits, let alone some 6,000 statewide, would be disingenuous. That I have tremendous admiration for many of them is the truth. Through Covid, Vermont has thrived as a national example of doing the right things; our nonprofits deserve much of the credit. During the first Covid surge, through its current outbreak, Vermont’s nonprofits have continued to work tirelessly — combatting food insecurity, inadequate shelter, domestic violence, and other perils many Vermonters have never experienced.
As a former corporate marketer turned strategic growth consultant for nonprofits, I know how demanding nonprofit work is. I pivoted to nonprofit early in 2002, shortly after witnessing the horrific events of 9/11 from my office several miles north of Ground Zero. It was an extremely difficult transition, but those early experiences led me to specialize in strategic fundraising, and earn my MBA in mid-career, after which I also became a college educator.
It is from all those perspectives that I wanted to learn more about the work of Vermont’s nonprofits, their contributions to the state’s economy, and exactly why a particular Vermont nonprofit generated international headlines. Here’s some of what I learned.
- Nonprofit organizations comprise the second largest industry in the state, employing 1 in 7 Vermont workers, according to Common Good Vermont. Common Good cited these other contributions:
- Vermont state and local nonprofits classified as public charities serve every person in Vermont, in some way, at some point in our lives.
- Vermont nonprofits serve all corners of the state. With healthcare and education driving sector revenue, public charities generate nearly $6 billion.
- Vermont nonprofits contribute $5.7 billion per year to the economy through wages paid, retail and wholesale purchases, and professional service contracts. This contribution is equivalent to nearly 20% of Vermont’s gross state product.
While most Vermont nonprofits are dedicated to their missions, a few strive to be great. The principles and practices espoused by the bestseller “Good to Great,” by management guru Jim Collins, and adopted by nonprofits around the world, are evident in Vermont. Here are some of their characteristics:
- Passion for the mission, vision, and values of their organizations
- A well-constructed and operational strategic plan
- Dedication to excellence in achieving measurable societal benefit
- Explicit understanding of what best drives their organizations’ time, money, and goodwill
- Commitment to leading a financially responsible enterprise
- Respect for the dignity of all the organization’s stakeholders
The reasons some Vermont nonprofits stumble, struggle, and sometimes fail are very similar. Over the past year, I have met with various Vermont philanthropic institutions, board members, executive directors, nonprofit employees, volunteers, and educators. Many were very candid about stumbles made by otherwise noble nonprofits. A few examples:
- Executive directors who disrespect employees, volunteers, job applicants, or vendors. Negative news spreads rapidly, making recruiting more difficult, which hurts programs and potentially decreases funding.
- Apathy about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Progressive Vermont nonprofits are instituting new practices and staff evaluation protocols to encourage ethical and respectful behavior — toward all.
- Employees who denigrate their organizations’ leaders. Disparaging comments by staff can unfairly hurt reputations, diminish morale, and may result in loss of funding.
- Leaders and other staff who underestimate the power of media. In a small state, it is astonishing to learn about nonprofit staff who push back, threaten, or outright lie to media. The resulting negative publicity can be insurmountable.
Over the past 18 months, several nonprofits gained new directors. All are infusing their organizations with renewed vigor: concerted focus on strategic planning; new programs to serve more Vermonters; commitment to societal impact; and unmitigated respect for their stakeholders. I’m looking forward to learning more about these new leaders, and to learning from them as well.
If you’ve read this far, then you won’t be surprised about the great Vermont nonprofit that has generated international headlines. The Vermont Food Bank last year received a multi-million-dollar gift from MacKenzie Scott, the third-wealthiest woman in the world. Here’s how her advisers chose them:
- Searched for strong leadership teams and quantifiable results
- Researched nearly 7,000 organizations throughout the world, doing deep research on 800, through hundreds of emails and phone interviews
- Generated thousands of documents to determine community needs, program outcomes, and each organization’s capacity to absorb and make effective use of such funding
As we enter the final quarter of 2021, Vermonters will receive donation requests from numerous nonprofits working diligently to achieve greatness in their own way. With more than 6,000 nonprofits in a state of about 650,000 inhabitants, there’s a lot of competition. For the greater good, here’s hoping we all find time, money, and goodwill to help them — most especially, the ones striving to be great.
Liz DiMarco Weinmann, MBA, is a strategic growth specialist, nonprofit leader, business educator, and author. She is principal and owner of Liz DiMarco Weinmann, L3C, based in Rutland.