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September 15, 2014

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Philanthropy:

UNLV study identifies the most connected nonprofit groups in Southern Nevada

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Christopher DeVargas

Volunteers from Luxor and Excalibur join Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada in serving a special Thanksgiving meal to local homeless residents, Tuesday Nov. 26, 2013.

Nevadans looking to donate to charities may be confounded by all the options — hundreds of nonprofits in the region addressing needs in education, health, and social services such as hunger and homelessness.

Where would money do the most good?

UNLV’s Lincy Institute offers some guidance, based on research that shows that the more connected a charity is with others in town, the more effective it is in applying donations and the more successful it is in its mission.

“The best thing a nonprofit can do as it seeks to solve a problem is go out and partner,” said Robert Lang, UNLV director of Brookings Mountain West. “Partnerships allow you to extend resources further because what it means is you’ve got more people working on the same problem.”

The organizations that share board members, meet with other nonprofits, collaborate for grant applications and have more connections also tend to have more access to information and resources, better potential to mobilize others to act quickly, and a higher ability to influence others and spread information.

“There’s some very complex social problems — homelessness, poor education, effects of recession — and one organization cannot tackle these complex problems in the same way organizations together can,” said Shannon Monnat, lead author of the UNLV study.

The best-connected nonprofits, Monnat and her colleagues found, are UNLV, United Way of Southern Nevada, Help of Southern Nevada, Catholic Charities, Three Square Food Bank, the Clark County School District, Goodwill of Southern Nevada and Opportunity Village.

Although the government runs the School District, it’s on the list because food banks such as Three Square partner with the School District to distribute food, Lang said.

“If you’re a philanthropist and you’re investing in someone like Three Square, they’re not just sitting on money but partnering with schools,” he said. “Three Square gets food to CCSD and then CCSD has staff to organize that food resource to distribute.”

Therefore, the dollar you donate to Three Square goes further because the food bank can use its partners to provide services and can spend more money on actually purchasing and distributing food, he said.

The report measured the partnership connections between about 400 nonprofits in the Las Vegas Valley. It found that almost half of the nonprofits formed within the past dozen years, meaning Southern Nevada has a very young nonprofit sector.

But it’s a relatively robust network, Monnat said.

“There appears to be a real passion and commitment and dedication to serving the residents of Southern Nevada, and it does appear that collaboration has improved over the past few years,” she said.

Still, there’s a lot of room for improvement.

Nonprofits reported to researchers that in struggling for money, they are competing for scarce resources, engendering a “cut-throat spirit” among organizations that leads to less partnership.

“It seems like everyone wants to be the ‘hub’ and there is not often willingness to be the ‘spoke’ in something bigger,” one respondent wrote on a questionnaire.

Respondents also bemoaned that few nonprofits effectively use data to measure outcomes of their programs, nor do they share data at a community level or have meetings to learn more about what their peers are doing.

The report recommends nonprofits share more data, meet more often, develop a leadership academy and mentorship program for skills training, and develop an email list to share information.

Monnat noted that the report doesn’t measure the quality of services nonprofits provide. But she said connections do contribute in some way to quality.

For example, she said the federal government is increasingly awarding grant money to applicants who show they’re collaborating with local governments, other nonprofits and businesses.

So partnership is a viable strategy to get more federal dollars to Nevada, which ranks last in the nation in the amount of federal dollars per person that come to the state from Washington, D.C.

UNLV should have reports detailing this lack of federal funding and another examination of the nonprofit sector in Nevada sometime early next year, Lang said.

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