At a recent presentation in Augusta about the challenges facing Maine, Gov. Paul LePage asked two important questions: “What’s the cost of despair and how do we fight [it]?” Referring to the role played by religious and community groups and nonprofits, he said: “It’s not going to be done in government. What government can do is create the environment for prosperity.”
We agree: Solutions to our most vexing social challenges are not found solely in government. Our society relies on an active, engaged partnership among public, business and nonprofit organizations to provide for our most vulnerable citizens, while nurturing a resilient economy that emphasizes prosperity and a high quality of life for everyone who lives, works and plays in Maine.
Here is a statistic that might surprise you: 1 in 6 Maine workers — more than 95,000 Mainers — works in mission-driven organizations that strengthen both the economic and social fabric of our communities, according to a new economic assessment. That’s 14 times the size of the state’s agricultural industry. Most work in either hospitals (38 percent) or other social services (30 percent), while the rest work in fields like education, the arts, professional services and the environment.
In addition, 1 in 3 Mainers volunteers for a nonprofit, equaling $935 million per year contributed in time and talent. From Kittery to Fort Kent, a strong network of nonprofits undergirds the Maine we all love.
Every day, these groups safeguard our natural resources, nurture our minds, protect our health, and provide opportunities for civic engagement. Very likely, we can all point to a nonprofit that we have depended on, donated to or championed as important to our community.
But the Maine nonprofit sector’s significant contribution to overall economy is often overlooked. In 2015, Maine’s nonprofit sector paid more than $4.3 billion in wages, or 17.5 percent of the state’s total payroll. It contributed $11 billion to the economy through wages, retail and wholesale purchases, and professional services.
Maine’s nonprofit sector is a partner in prosperity — both as an economic driver and a creative problem solver. Government turns to nonprofits to provide essential services to citizens and to fulfill commitments established by policymakers, often more effectively and at a lower cost. Reliance on nonprofits is especially acute in New England, where many services are delivered locally rather than at the county level. Nonprofits also partner with corporations and businesses to revitalize economies and support community programs. Nonprofits can uniquely attract private contributions that add to government and business investments. In short, this tri-sector relationship works together every day to identify problems, marshal resources and implement innovative solutions.
A strong Maine economy needs a strong nonprofit sector, which makes support from our government and business partners that is focused on long-term sustainability, rather than short-term fiscal pressures, even more critical. For instance, the state reimbursement rates for intellectual and disability services haven’t changed in 10 years. Just like the demand for workers in the private sector, many nonprofits struggle with high staff turnover because they can’t offer competitive wages. This has a negative financial impact on nonprofits and, more importantly, potentially harmful impact on the quality of care.
We can be proud that Mainers are doing so much with so little. We have one of the most vibrant nonprofit sectors in the country supported by one of the smallest philanthropic communities. There are thousands of people donating their time and treasure on their own, through community groups, and through highly engaged private and public foundations. As a result, there are many examples of Maine nonprofits being adaptive, innovative and highly effective.
If they are to continue to be successful partners in prosperity, it is critically important that policymakers, business and community leaders, and Maine residents first understand how nonprofits impact our state, then offer ways to support them. Strong partnerships among all three sectors are the answer to many of our current challenges. Rather than spending limited resources on perennial debates, such as the governor’s recent proposal to remove property tax exemptions for nonprofits, which often pit the sectors against one another, policymakers and other leaders can facilitate better collaborations that target outcomes that are mutually beneficial.
Nonprofits are essential partners in not only fighting despair, but inspiring and mobilizing people to transform communities. We all have a role to play in ensuring nonprofits are partners in Maine’s prosperity.
Jennifer Hutchins is the executive director of the Maine Association of Nonprofits.