Nonprofits discuss how to improve their credibility

Compared to the federal government and private business, charitable organizations seem to rate favorably in the public eye.

Still, nonprofit leaders gathered Tuesday to discuss “Delving into public perception: What Minnesotans think about the charitable section (and what to do about it)” at a forum sponsored by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans and the Charities Review Council.

Rich Cowles, executive director of the council, said strengthening public trust in nonprofits would increase philanthropy.

The forum produced no big surprises, but it left one perennial question hanging in the air: How do individual nonprofits show their supporters — in a concrete way — that they are making a difference in the community?

Panelist Lauren Segal, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Twin Cities United Way, said one of the reasons people distrust nonprofits is that they don’t necessarily see the community improving despite their financial support.

Panelist Daniel Johnson, president and executive director of United Health Foundation (the foundation set up by Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Care), said all nonprofits are challenged to show impact. “How do you quantify impact? How do you measure impact? How do you communicate your impact?” he asked. “That is critical.”

But answers are tough to come by. For individual nonprofits, it’s difficult to draw a direct connection between a particular program and long-term outcomes — graduation rates, for example.

Even so, Segal said the United Way has created community-level measures and will monitor progress during the next five to 10 years. But it is new work for United Way.

“We are learning as we go,” she said. “It takes time. There is no way one organization can impact the societal condition. It has to be because we have all banded together.”

Cowles discussed a 2007 report that suggested state residents generally trust the charitable sector: 72 percent of survey respondents reported a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence.

The survey also found that 58 percent of respondents thought charities waste a “great deal” or “fair amount” of money. That’s not so great. But even more respondents, 68 percent, said the business sector is wasteful and 79 percent said the federal government is, too.

Each year, the United Way receives its own message about the public’s trust level — “and that is called our annual campaign,” Segal said.

Johnson doesn’t dispute the connection between higher trust levels and public support, but trust is not the only factor driving contributions, he said.

“I suspect that one of the most important things that could happen to strengthen philanthropy is the economy,” he said.

Next up for the Charities Review Council: Annual Forum, “Restoring Confidence in Charities,” with Paul C. Light, New York University Wagner School of Public Service, June 18.

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