Casey Weed (left), Asia Ciaravino (middle), and Corina Zars (right), walk through Main Plaza during the 2015 BigGiveSA. Photo by Scott Ball.
(From left) Casey Weed, Asia Ciaravino, and Corina Zars, walk through Main Plaza during The Big Give SA in 2015. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Some San Antonio nonprofits providing everything from basic human services to arts enrichment and education in this community say, in many cases, the cost of providing services surpassed the funds they brought in last year. That’s according to the first-ever State of the Nonprofit Sector Report released in January, less than two weeks ahead of the annual fundraising campaign, The Big Give.

The report, commissioned by The Nonprofit Council and funded through a $22,000 grant from Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, is the first comprehensive look at the nonprofit sector in the greater San Antonio region, covering Bexar County and 12 surrounding counties.

Conducted by the UTSA Department of Public Administration, the study’s purpose was to provide a snapshot of the nonprofit sector, including what types of organizations are active, the populations they serve, challenges they confront, and their impact on the region. The report highlights three nonprofits that are measuring effectiveness and “moving the needle” toward solving problems in the community.

UTSA’s Kandyce Fernandez and Jennifer Alexander distributed the State of the Sector survey in June 2017 to 1,360 organizations identified and contacted by The Nonprofit Council, SA2020, and United Way of San Antonio. Of those, 421 nonprofits completed a majority of the online survey and 244 answered the entire questionnaire. All respondents are listed in the report.

Most of the nonprofits that returned the survey do work in the human services category of nonprofits, followed closely by family well-being, and 41 percent were smaller nonprofits, with annual budgets below $300,000.

Scott McAninch, CEO of The Nonprofit Council, said he was pleased with the response rate, given that nonprofits tend to be time-crunched and that the survey asked for financial data that might have been difficult for organizations to collect at the time. However, he hoped response would be better.

“It was really an opportunity for these nonprofits to get engaged and take the survey because we explained to them that we want to share it with not only our elected officials,” McAninch said. “To let them know what the sector is doing, what they provide to the community, what they do that government can’t do and what that would look like if the nonprofits weren’t around – [but also] our funding community, to give them an idea. And I thought it was a nice complement to what SA2020 does with their Impact Report,” which provides context on local goals, successes and challenges, calls-to-action, and profiles of the city’s 10 council districts.

The nonprofit report showed that organizations reported relatively stable financial conditions over the past three years, with human service organizations the most financially stressed as they covered the gap between service costs and reimbursements.

But nearly one-third of all respondents reported that their expenses exceeded revenues in the last fiscal year. Specifically, they struggle to meet operations expenses related to funding for staff training, professional development, technology support, health insurance and benefits for employees, and competitive salaries.

Middle to extra-large organizations emphasized a need for unrestricted funds to bridge the gap between government funding and total service costs. And smaller organizations need more funding for capital improvements, equipment, and larger facilities.

“Some of the unmet needs were interesting,” McAninch said. “The part about staff development and leadership development – those of us in the sector know the San Antonio Area Foundation does an incredible job with capacity-building workshops. But what is telling to me, which we kind of knew working with so many small agencies in surrounding counties, is that they could use capacity-building training, but don’t have the budget for it. I’m hoping the Big Give fills some of that gap.”

The Big Give is South Central Texas’ 24-hour day of online giving to support causes in the community, from animal welfare and the environment to poverty relief, the arts, and education. The purpose is not just a financial shot-in-the-arm for nonprofits, but also a way to raise awareness, which was one of the most frequently expressed challenges – beyond funding – nonprofits cited in the State of the Sector report.

The Big Give has brought in nearly $15 million for local nonprofits in the last four years. Though it fell short of its $6 million fund-raising goal in 2017, it raised $4.6 million for local organizations and broke the annual record for number of unique donors and donations.

This year’s Big Give kicks off at midnight on March 22 with a goal to raise $7 million for the 626 organizations participating. At the urging of past participants, McAninch said The Nonprofit Council has spent $208,000 on $450,000 worth of television and radio advertising to promote the event – the first time the organization has ever paid for such promotion.

“We’ve got to reach the general market that isn’t used to giving to nonprofits,” McAninch said. “I think it will make a difference, I really do.”

He added that the Lion & Rose Restaurant and Pub owner Allen Tharp is donating the use of the iconic, double-decker bus which The Nonprofit Council will use to draw media attention as it travels to various Big Give events throughout the city that day.

The State of the Sector survey also asked organizations to rank the effectiveness of their programs over the past year and provide examples of measurable outcomes. Overall, 81 percent of all respondents said their primary program was highly effective, and 22 percent indicated that their primary program was somewhat effective.

The three nonprofits selected for measuring effectiveness are Healthy Futures of Texas, San Antonio Pets Alive! and ReadyKidSA, a coalition of agencies that includes Any Baby Can, The Children’s Shelter, Clarity Child Guidance Center, Communities in Schools, the Family Service Association of San Antonio, the Martinez Street Women’s Center, and the YMCA of Greater San Antonio.

Each of the three highlighted organizations was able to show that it had made some progress toward its goals.

“The struggle for years for the nonprofit sector is … trying to figure out how to get a better return on investment for the activity we’re engaged in,” said Denise Barkhurst, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas and former chairperson of The Nonprofit Council’s advocacy committee. “This report was a huge undertaking, so we don’t expect to do it every year. But next time, we do want to take another step forward in determining how well people are achieving their mission and drill down into those outcomes.”

For an organization like Big Brothers Big Sisters, which has a goal of helping young people become successful adults, measuring and proving effectiveness can be a challenge.

“For years, we [as a sector] have struggled to do that, and it’s not that we’re not trying, and it’s not that we aren’t doing it, it’s just that we have to do a better job at understanding, at a population level, what our outcomes are, what’s the return on investment, and how are we moving the needle,” Barkhurst said. She said municipal leaders, taxpayers, and donors want to know where their money is going, especially when the problems they set out to solve in the community persist.

“And I understand that,” she said, adding that donors come to her and ask how the organization measures its impact on children’s lives. “There’s no elevator speech for long-term outcomes. I think we really need to turn the corner in terms of putting outcomes first. Our resources barely cover the implementing of our services, and to measure outcomes has just been impossible.”

McAninch said the advocacy committee of The Nonprofit Council, led by Children’s Association for Maximum Potential CEO Susan Osborn, will be meeting in April to plan and set up meetings with local elected officials and others, and present findings from the State of the Sector report.

This article was originally published on March 11, 2018. 

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.