Helping the helpers

A search for ways to improve nonprofit support

Movers & Makers gathered six organizations for a conversation about Greater Cincinnati nonprofits whose mission is to help other nonprofits. Moderator Doug Bolton – CEO of Cincinnati Cares, M&M’s interim editor and chair of M&M’s board – led a discussion that included M&M co-publisher Thom Mariner; Leadership Council for Nonprofits Executive Director Beth Benson; OneSource for Nonprofit Excellence CEO Christie Brown; Pro Bono Partnership of Ohio Executive Director Erin Childs; and Cincinnati Toolbank Executive Director Kat Pepmeyer. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation:

Doug Bolton, Beth Benson, Christie Brown

Doug: How could we be working together more?

Christie: Certainly, in capacity building, we have been talking about what we can do together. Beth (Benson) and I took a field trip to meet with the Miami Valley Nonprofit Collaborative in Dayton to get ideas. So then (Beth and I) started a conversation with Erin (Childs) and AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals) around training, mostly. We are all doing training, and we’re not necessarily tripping over each other, but not necessarily coordinating as well as we could. We have agreed to do four quarterly things as a collaborative ourselves.

Beth: This is a trust-building exercise for her and I. We didn’t know each other before this. Our boards didn’t get together and talk about it, but it’s a sheer force of will that we wanted to get together and pursue this. I don’t want to speak for you, Christie, but does that reflect what we’re thinking?

Christie: Yes, I keep throwing out fishing lines, ideas for things. I have suggested to several partners coming out of our strategic planning that we should do something around (joint) memberships. There are so many membership organizations. Nonprofits can do Toolbank, Leadership Council, OneSource, Human Services Chamber, AFP. This is a hard nut to crack because everyone relies on their membership revenue and there are different tiers. It would certainly be easier if a nice funder would come along and we could bridge that gap and bring us all together so that no one suffers if we try to do something together. As everyone knows, it’s always harder to do things with more players vs. just keeping things as they are and marching forward.

Beth: For us, membership revenue is a third of our budget, so it is a substantial part of what makes our programming possible. Something like joint memberships or membership discounts is an intriguing idea and we are committed to continuing the conversation, but it’s complicated by various business models.

Thom Mariner, Erin Childs, Kat Pepmeyer

Thom: We have tossed around the idea of a membership model for years. For us, it’s about creating a higher level of engagement with the organizations we serve. It always comes down to “How do we do this without becoming overly complex about it?” We certainly would welcome input on how to do this, especially now that we’re operating as a nonprofit.

Erin: Going back to Doug’s original question about how we can help each other and how Movers & Makers can help us, getting the word out in the way you are doing by putting us all together and saying, “This is what each organization does” … is very helpful. Some are very clear about what they do and who they are, like Christie ’s consulting program and Beth’s BOLD (Board Orientation Leadership Development) training. But I think for all of us in the nonprofit sector to be able to wrap our heads around who does what, and where there is overlap, is very helpful. If you are looking to rent tools, you know exactly where to go. If you are looking for legal services, here’s where you go. Some of us are siloed. But we talk to nonprofits who don’t know about Toolbank, but likewise we’re able to tell them you can rent tables and AV equipment from them in addition to tools. So just getting the word out about nonprofits who serve nonprofits is really important.

Kat: Maybe it’s each of us having a page on our website – the same page for each of us – directing people to the right place?

Beth: Doug and Thom, you also have the platform to talk about the bigger issues. I have been noodling on this both before and after Suzanne Smith’s talk at our Nonprofit Leadership Summit last week – that the nonprofit sector is an important industry, an important economic driver. Thinking about, for example, the biggest problem is talent acquisition, the great resignation, quiet quitting … all those things affect this sector as well. Is anybody in high school and college learning that this (working in the nonprofit sector) is a true career pathway? How does the community at large, the business community and community leadership, think about this sector? We do a lot of things to drive economic development and incentives. Suzanne used the calculation that 13 percent of our region’s economy  is the nonprofit sector. Even if people in our region think about the nonprofit sector as a force for good and have warm and fuzzy feelings about what we do, they may not think about it as an economic driver. But what I want the larger community to realize is that this is a profession you can go into. It’s an economic driver, it’s a career path, in addition to the impact that individual organizations are making. I want people to look at us with a different lens.

Thom: I do think people gravitate to this sector a little later in their career. I was at the Cincinnati Type & Print Museum, where they are teaching people how to work in the printing industry. I wonder if there are ways we can do that for the nonprofit sector?

Beth: Some of us have been doing this since we were 22. The second career is what people hear about. But this is my chosen career. People should know what this sector represents. There’s a new institute starting at the University of Cincinnati around leadership in the community (https://business.uc.edu/centers-partnerships/warren-bennis-leadership.html). Their leaders and I were talking about boards, co-ops, internships and I got on my soapbox about this being an industry and a career path and I think there are some real opportunities with UC and other local institutions.

Thom: I think this speaks to redefining the whole conversation around how things are funded in an institutional way, about having all the resources you need to do your job. On my first day as an executive director for another organization in 2012, I neither had furniture nor a computer, I was supposed to go raise money to get those. I have been a big proponent of changing that dynamic for a long, long time. Working by starvation isn’t good.

Kat: That’s as bad as some people asking me, “You work at a nonprofit, do you get paid?” Yes, I tell them, but not a lot!

Beth: And if you do get paid well, you have investigative reporters coming after you. It’s a misunderstanding. We need everything a business needs. We need HR, marketing, sales, logistics. I think everybody thinks everybody in a nonprofit is a social worker. We need the same committed professionals as any other line of work.

Christie: Even though you at M&M are a nonprofit now, you are media. To have a trusted media outlet that’s saying these things, that we can refer to and post and use in our grant requests – the impact we have in our community, not just the struggles, but what good we’re doing in the community, jobs being created – that resonates more with funders.

Thom: A conservative voice asked me once, “If nonprofits are so important, why is the world such a mess?” And my response was, “Could you imagine what it would be like if we went away?”

Erin: 100 percent agree, Thom, and to piggyback on what Beth was saying, I think that line of thought also goes to why our capacity-building organizations are so important. If a for-profit business goes out of business, the owners and the workers and the suppliers, they all are going to lose. All of the organizations that we serve, they are working every day to try to make sure they have strong foundations so they can focus on their missions. If they were to go away, it’s not just the individuals that work or volunteer with the organizations that would be impacted. It’s our whole community. And I think part of the importance of this issue is telling that story about why it’s important that nonprofits have strong foundations, that they have consultants who can help them with strategic plans, and that they have a good legal foundation. What we’re doing is even more important than a lot of for-profit businesses. If we went away, what would happen?

Christie: I said that at our recent fundraiser. I asked the crowd to take a moment and think about our community without the homeless shelters, the soup kitchens, the arts. Think about our community without all of that. It seems so obvious to us, but the greater community takes us for granted.

Doug: Don’t want to cut off our conversation, but I do want to ask what you all wish you had known “then” that you know now.

Beth: To take more business classes. Because you need that. I have a journalism degree, and I thought I would do something related to that. But either at the high levels of a big organization – I was at the Greater Cincinnati Foundation for 16 years – or like I am here where I cover all the bases, you don’t have the luxury of saying, “I am not a finance person.” I wish I had a little more grounding of that all through my career.

Erin: Business for sure. But I did not realize just how amazing the nonprofit community is. To really connect and get to know the individuals who are leading the charge and dedicating their lives to leading our community. They are the smartest, most dedicated, creative, big thinkers, who are not afraid of tackling huge issues. And that is so inspiring. While the rest of the world is quiet-quitting or leaving their jobs, I see people in our sector leaning in and working harder than ever before and welcoming those who have not been part of the nonprofit community to come and join us and bring your ideas. The spirit of collaboration. We’ve done more mergers at Pro Bono Partnership recently and we’re talking about more. For whatever reason the new generation of leaders are partnering. It gives me great hope.

Christie: My greatest learning is how long it takes to do things. In industry, you’re supposed to be nimble and actionable. Here, you just have to build a lot of runways.

Kat: And a lot of different ones. I wish I had known that it would take so long – and probably it’s good I didn’t know – to convince people that we need more staff. When I started, my board signed onto the idea that this would be a one-man show. It became clear to me early on that it wouldn’t be. It’s hard to get things done, convincing my 20 bosses what we need to grow the organization. They are looking at it through a different lens.

Beth: We hit hard on that in BOLD training. We don’t want them storming in and saying you shouldn’t be spending money. They need to understand the environment the staff is working in, listen and have some compassion and context. A lot of people who are reading this will never be staff members at a nonprofit, but they are likely on a board or are a donor. Helping them understand this ecosystem is a public service.

Christie: I still like my idea of having a Dear Abby column for nonprofit executives.

Thom: Yes, we’d get lots of questions, like “What do I do with this board member?”

Christie: What about you, Doug?

Doug: Inspiring Service was started in 2017, and Cincinnati Cares got its start in 2018. I wish I would have known that, here we are now five years into this, that we would have been interrupted by a pandemic nearly three years ago. Right before the pandemic, we were ready to take our board-connecting platform national, and of course with the pandemic that didn’t happen. We had begun working with businesses on their volunteer engagement, and that ended during the pandemic and is only now beginning to return but we’re really starting over. The pandemic helped us expand our core volunteer-connecting platform to other markets, which was amazing. But we’re only now beginning to test again the national expansion of the board platform, because there remains nothing like it in the national marketplace. Don’t we all wish we had known the pandemic was coming?

Kat: If we would have known the pandemic was lurking, we would have never bought this building, and that decision remains the best choice we have ever made. And I am really glad I negotiated a fantastic deal with the Port. We were thinking we can raise this money in 18 months, but just in case, can we make that first balloon payment $50,000 instead of $100,000? I don’t know where we would be if that hadn’t happened. So, I am glad I didn’t know the pandemic was coming.

Thom: For me, I wish I had come to the realization sooner that our publication is more likely much more important to the development department than it is to those who want to sell tickets to events. It doesn’t mean advertising in our magazine won’t help sell tickets to an event. But it’s really what we can do as a public forum to help build awareness of sponsorships through brand identities, through donor names, etc. This is what this magazine was founded on in 1995. If I had the realization earlier that my real customer is the development department, not PR and marketing, this may have been easier.

Where nonprofits can go for help

ProBono Partnership of Ohio

Founded: 2015 | Annual revenue: $682,237 | Assets: $1.12 million

Powered by attorney volunteers, PBPO strengthens Greater Cincinnati by providing free business legal services and education to nonprofits in Cincinnati and Dayton. PBPO recruits, connects and supports attorney volunteers to donate their time and expertise on behalf of its nonprofit clients. Its 300+ nonprofit clients then have access to high-quality legal services and can focus their limited resources on their mission. It envisions a just and equitable community enhanced by thriving nonprofits and engaged attorney volunteers. To date, 800+ attorney volunteers and its own internal legal staff have provided an estimated value of legal services and education for nonprofits at over $8 million.

Erin Childs, executive director, erin@pbpohio.org; 513-977-0304; www.pbpohio.org 

Leadership Council for Nonprofits

Founded: 1977 | Annual revenue: $312,606 | Assets: $239,558

Leadership Council for Nonprofits is a group of local nonprofit agencies that wish to build capacity, connect, collaborate with and learn from each other in order to meet the needs of the community. Its network of nonprofit agencies, with more than 250 nonprofit members, represents more than 17,000 employees, and provides an economic impact of over $1.3 billion to the community. Leadership Council supports the nonprofit community by offering leadership development programs, training, cost savings (including retirement plans at no cost and group purchasing) and networking opportunities for its members.

Elizabeth Reiter Benson, executive director, bbenson@leadershipcouncil.us; 513-554-3060; www.leadershipcouncil.us

OneSource Center for Nonprofit Excellence

Founded: 1994 | Annual revenue: $788,713 | Assets: $506,796

OneSource Center for Nonprofit Excellence is our area’s nonprofit resource center providing services, products and connections to strengthen the impact of nonprofits serving the Greater Cincinnati community. OneSource Center has a volunteer core with over 125 professionals who provide a wide range of expert consulting services to support nonprofit operations. Additionally, coaching services, a strong leadership development and training program and a warehouse that redistributes donated furniture and retail products provides support and cost savings available to the entire nonprofit community.

Christie Brown, CEO, cbrown@onesourcectr.org; 513-554-4944; http://onesourcecenter.org

Cincinnati Cares

Founded: 2018 | Annual revenue: $242,045 | Assets: $38,490

The mission of Cincinnati Cares is to connect people in Greater Cincinnati to the ways they want to help. Its vision is making Greater Cincinnati the best volunteer ecosystem in the world. Created in the wake of data showing Greater Cincinnati’s volunteer rates declining at twice the national rate, founders Craig and Michal Young launched technology platforms using modern and innovative approaches to volunteer matching and engagement. Cincinnati Cares is the Greater Cincinnati region’s only volunteer hub, serving as a resource for individuals, organizations and companies to connect with 700 regional nonprofits who actively engage volunteers.

Doug Bolton, CEO, doug@cincinnaticares.org; 513-910-2584; www.cincinnaticares.org 

Movers & Makers 

Founded: 1995 | Annual revenue: $265,000 | Assets: $42,787

Founded as Express Cincinnati in 1995, Movers & Makers was re-branded and upgraded in 2016. In 2021, a nonprofit was formed under the name of Movers and Makers Publishing which merged with Cincinnati Cares. Together, the organizations seek to inform, inspire and involve Greater Cincinnati’s 2.3 million residents in community engagement that makes the region a better place to live, work and play. Movers & Makers is a free print and digital publication, with 10,000 copies distributed 11 times each year. An email each Wednesday to 10,000 subscribers provides breaking news about the nonprofit sector.

Thom and Elizabeth Mariner, co-publishers, tmariner@moversmakers.org, 513-543-0890; www.moversmakers.org 

Cincinnati Community ToolBank

Founded: 2012 | Annual revenue: $306,533 | Assets: $1,061,337

ToolBank serves community-based organizations by providing tools, equipment and expertise to empower their most ambitious goals.Whether providing tables for a volunteer check-in, trash grabbers for a neighborhood litter cleanup, generators for a neighborhood association’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony or shovels to help convert a vacant lot into a community garden, Toolbank exists to enable community work at all levels.

Kat Pepmeyer, executive director, Kat.Pepmeyer@toolbank.org; 513-246-0015; www.cincinnatitoolbank.org 

Funding nonprofits serving nonprofits*

  • Social Venture Partners Cincinnati (Spotlight story)
  • United Way of Greater Cincinnati
  • Greater Cincinnati Foundation
  • Horizon Community Funds of NKY
  • Impact 100
  • Flywheel
  • Interact for Health
  • GreenLight Fund
  • Rotary Club of Cincinnati Foundation
  • Give Back Cincinnati (Fuel Cincinnati)
  • Community Shares
  • ArtsWave

*Includes community foundations, but excludes other foundations in the region unless they provide other services, coordinating activities other than funding.

Groups providing advocacy or other services

  • Alpaugh Family Economics Center (Spotlight story)
  • Mayerson Academy 
  • Human Services Chamber
  • Covington Business Council
  • Area chambers of commerce
  • Better Business Bureau
  • Green Umbrella
  • CityLink
  • Junior League

Membership organizations serving nonprofits

Association of Fundraising Professionals

The chapter’s goal is to advance the development profession in the Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky region as well as to serve as a professional resource. 

Cincinnati Association of Volunteer Administrators

CAVA is the leading membership-based professional organization for Directors of Volunteers in Agencies (DOVIA) in Greater Cincinnati and Southwest Ohio.

Greater Cincinnati Planned Giving Council

Founded in 1992, the council has been the trusted source to increase the quantity and quality of planned gifts in Greater Cincinnati by providing a forum for education, training and networking to members.

Local nonprofit business accelerators*

  • Aviatra Accelerators
  • OCEAN 
  • MORTAR 
  • Queen City Angels 
  • Main Street Ventures 
  • SCORE

*Most of these accelerators focus on for-profit business, but also provide assistance to nonprofits.