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Non-profit leaders and government officials met last week at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake to talk about growing the region's non-profit sector. Photo: Brian Mann
Non-profit leaders and government officials met last week at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake to talk about growing the region's non-profit sector. Photo: Brian Mann

North Country non-profits struggle to grow jobs and attract dollars

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This week NCPR is looking at the role that non-profit organizations are playing in the North Country's economy.

Hospitals, research labs, and universities provide some of the best jobs, bringing new investment and grant money to our small towns. But even as non-profits work to grow and attract even more economic development to the region, they face big hurdles, including the loss of government dollars.

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The frustration everybody has is that there's just not enough money to go around for all these missions that we have.
Last week when Governor Andrew Cuomo promised $35 million to Clarkson University and the Trudeau Institute, he wasn’t talking about education or immunology research – at least, that wasn’t tops on the agenda. 

The big ticket item was jobs and the idea that these two non-profits, one in Potsdam, the other in Saranac Lake, can emerge as even bigger economic engines.

“We were in danger of losing Trudeau. About 80 jobs were currently at Trudeau and we were in danger of losing all 80. Trudeau was going to close down, pack up and move on.  We took the Trudeau closing as the opportunity to find a different relationship and a different synergy with Trudeau and a different business model, which we found,” Cuomo said.

That new business model, with non-profits leading the way, isn’t really all that new. But there is a growing awareness that not-for-profit companies and organizations are serving an important role in many of our small towns as job providers. 

“It’s something that people do not think about when they think about health care,” said Chandler Ralph, who heads Adirondack Health based in Saranac Lake, which also operates clinics and nursing homes from Tupper Lake to Keene. “We area a tremendous service industry, that’s our number one mission.  But the economic impact of not-for-profit hospitals, especially in upstate New York, is huge. We are almost always the largest employer.”

A new study released last week found that 36 non-profits in the North Country generated more than $400 million in economic activity, providing roughly 10% of all the jobs in the region.

Cali Brookes, head of the Adirondack Foundation, which co-sponsored the study and hosted a meeting of non-profits groups at the Wild Center last week. She ays the non-profit sector is playing a more prominent role in the economy. “This being rural America and small towns, the non-profits are more visible, they’re more active, and more engaged," said Brooks. You can see them stronger and brighter here than in other places.”

But even as the non-profit sector gains respect and clout, there are big questions about sustainability.

The biggest involves government funding. Many of these non-profits rely on government grants and programs for a big part of their annual revenue. But with huge deficits in Albany and Washington DC, the flow of taxpayer dollars is being squeezed.

John Mills, president of Paul Smiths College, explains, “I think it’s a very serious threat. We’re 50% Pell grant.  The Pell grant hasn’t gone up in five years. And there’s a new financial aid coming through from the Obama administration and we don’t know the details. But we’re getting less and less as a percentage of our total revenue each year.”

That same uncertainty faces the North Country’s non-profit hospitals and nursing homes and clinics. Chandler Ralph with Adirondack Health says some of the region’s biggest job providers are undergoing a major restructuring because of government cutbacks. Hospitals across the region have cut jobs, closed facilities and even merged operations.

“What we are today is not what we’re going to be five years from now," Ralph said.  "The economic model for funding healthcare is not sustainable.”

Dan Stec, NY Assemblman from Queensbury, says the fight for scarce government funding is a major problem even for the most valuable non-profits, “The frustration everybody has is that there’s just not enough money to go around for all these missions that we have.  That’s going to be a challenge regardless of what the organization looks like.”

Stec, who’s also a former town supervisor from Queensbury, says local governments are also feeling the pressure as non-profits take properties off the tax rolls and look for direct funding from towns and counties.  He pointed to the struggles of many non-profit fire and ambulance squads.

“You know, the days of bingo and chicken dinners to raise money to buy a pick-up truck are long over. If you’re buying a ladder truck it’s a million dollars," said Stec.  "All the bingo and chicken dinners in the world aren’t going to pay for that.  So they rely more and more on government funding and the size of their government contract, which becomes a source of frustration for some taxpayers.”

John Mills at Paul Smiths College says local governments should think hard before turning away non-profits, even when they do ask for some support or take property off the tax rolls. “I think they have to look at the total return on the investment.  How many jobs are we creating?  Middle class jobs that will benefit the community?”

As government dollars squeezed, Hillaire Logan-Duchene, head of philanthropy at the Wild Center, says many non-profits are getting better at attracting private dollars. “As we’re hearing today, many organizations can rely less and less on government support they might have enjoyed in the past, so we have to be creative in how we fund things and what our revenue sources are.”

Logan-Duchene says the Wild Center is already receiving the lion’s share of its revenue from ticket sales and from private donations, which means new dollars, new investment coming into the region. “Most of our support, up to 70%, comes from individual gifts and grants from our donors and our friends.”

But here too there’s growing competition, a growing pressure from non-profits often scrambling for the same foundation grants, the same big donors.

Ben Strader, a community organizer in Hamilton County, said, “I think philanthropy is one challenge. It’s been a lot of work for us, but we think if we communicate well and we run a streamlined well-run organization, the money will be there. I think there are other challenges to non-profits that we need to talk about.”

Strader says in many small North Country towns finding organizers, activists and volunteers to launch thriving non-profits is increasingly difficult, “Building a board, with such small populations, having people who know how to be on a board and how to contribute and be effective board members, there’s a lot of training involved there when you have a very, very small community.”

Not every non-profit will survive this kind of pressure over management and money. A year ago, the group ComLinks—once one of the biggest North Country non-profits—closed its doors for good. 

That meant fewer services for the communities it served.  It also means fewer jobs.

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