Community banks aid nonprofits fighting for survival

By Kevin Zimmerman

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The plight of the nonprofit organization in Fairfield County, rarely in fine fettle to start with, seems to be growing darker, with major challeges posed by increasing competition for ever-shrinking donations and a general reticence on the part of state and city governments facing their own financial problems.

Riding to the rescue — to a degree, at least — are the banks, which are trying to take a leading position when it comes to not just corporate and employee donations of dollars and volunteer efforts but also in helping nonprofits figure out how to stay in business.

A case in point is the newly published “2016 Connecticut Nonprofit Industry Outlook: Breaking Through Challenges with Innovative Strategies,” authored by Patriot Bank N.A. Among the report’s findings were that in fiscal year 2014, 78 percent of nonprofit organizations reported an increase in demand for programs and/or services – but only 56 percent were able to meet that increased demand.

In the meantime, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, as of April Connecticut is home to 20,299 registered nonprofit organizations, many of of which — 5,916 or 29 percent — are in Fairfield County.

The largest component of the Connecticut nonprofit sector consists of human service organizations (27 percent or 5,390 nonprofits), followed by public and societal benefit organizations (21 percent or 4,325 nonprofits) and faith-based organizations (12 percent or 2,369 nonprofits).

Nonprofits also provide substantial employment in the state. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 the nonprofit industry employed 14.4 percent, or nearly 200,000 workers, of Connecticut’s total private sector workforce, exceeding the national average of 10.3 percent.

While it hardly comes as news that nonprofits are struggling financially, indications are that they face significant challenges as never before. Meanwhile, the number of nonprofits and the cost of operations continue to rise. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, 66 organizations were added in Connecticut from December 2015 to April, further diluting each organization’s piece of the pie.

And that, the banks say, is where they come in.

“These are organizations that struggle every single day to remain viable and continue to do the good work they set out to do,” said Susan Neilson, executive vice president and COO in the Stamford headquarters of Patriot Bank. “We pride ourselves on providing banking solutions, and focusing on nonprofits is who we are as a community bank.”

Beyond “helping them open a checking account and creating lending possibilities,” Neilson said Patriot often works with corporate partners like office products firm W.B. Mason and Spyglass Brand Marketing to provide materials on a donated or reduced-cost basis.

While most banks work with nonprofits on a case-by-case basis when educating them on the nuts-and-bolts of business, Patriot holds semi-regular seminars to provide both educational and networking opportunities.

In late June, more than 130 municipal and nonprofit leaders representing a broad array of organizations serving southern Connecticut and Westchester County participated in the bank’s “Give Your Nonprofit Organization a Fundraising Edge” event. A meeting focusing on cybersecurity is scheduled for later this year, Neilson said.

Patriot serendipitously found itself in the furniture business last year during a remodeling, at a time when both the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk and The Center for Family Justice in Bridgeport were looking to replace some well-worn office equipment. Each ended up with about $45,000 worth of what The Center for Family Justice President and CEO Debra Greenwood called “gently loved furniture.”

Greenwood said that Susan Neilson and her husband, Patriot National Bancorp Inc. President and CEO Kenneth Neilson, have also made significant monetary donations both personally and on behalf of the bank. Susan Neilson will serve as honorary chairman of the CFJ’s first anniversary gala next April in recognition of its rebranding from The Center for Women and Families of Eastern Fairfield County.

“Patriot has been so instrumental in helping us,” Greenwood said, “especially with making connections with groups like TANGO,” The Alliance for Nonprofit Growth and Opportunity, a Farmington-based organization that provides nonprofits with access to service professionals.

Greenwood met with TANGO personnel at an event last year at the Maritime Aquarium, whose president, Brian Davis, credited the Neilsons with helping to shine a light on the facility’s needs.

“They’re not just about making a donation and moving on,” he said. “They’re interested in building a continuing relationship with you and keeping engaged, which is really refreshing.”

Patriot has sponsored various meetings and exhibits at the aquarium, Davis said, noting that significant support has also been given by the likes of People’s United and Fairfield County Bank, “which have provided support from a direct financial standpoint and underwriting and providing educational programs and other resources for students that would otherwise not be available.”

“Working with nonprofits in southwest Connecticut as a community partner and from a business standpoint is in our DNA,” said Reyno A. Giallongo, chairman and CEO at First County Bank. Since the inception of the First County Bank Foundation in 2001, Giallongo said, the bank has awarded $7.4 million in grants, with $600,000 given to 65 nonprofits in 2015 alone.

On a more “boots on the ground level,” he added, “Our employees regularly offer not only their expertise but more importantly their time and commitment.”

With General Electric leaving the county and Starwood Hotels & Resorts about to be acquired by Marriott International – two major supporters of nonprofits — and with the state budget cuts, “Being a nonprofit executive is not an easy task, to put it mildly,” Giallongo said,

“A lot of nonprofits that have relied on state and federal funding have seen significant cutbacks there,” said Karen Galbo, director of the People’s United Community Foundation (PUCF). “We’re sometimes almost in a position of gap funding, so to speak.”

PUCF granted nearly $600,000 to 72 nonprofits in Fairfield County last year, Galbo said. All told, in 2015 the foundation granted $2.5 million to 391 nonprofits in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

One PUCF grant recipient is The Bridge to Independence & Career Opportunities in Danbury. “Banks are one of the few places that remain consistent” when it comes to support, said LouAnn Bloomer, the nonprofit’s president and CEO. She said its benefactors also include Danbury’s Union Savings Bank, Newtown Savings Bank and Savings Bank of Danbury.

“The more partners you can get, the better you’ll be overall,” Bloomer said. She said that has become particularly true since United Way introduced its “collective impact” philosophy in 2013, which requires charities to explain how they will partner with other charities in order to receive United Way money — resulting in what Bloomer said are nearly incomprehensible funding decisions.

Marge Hiller, executive director of the Bridgeport Public Education Fund Inc., said banks are not giving the financial support to nonprofits that they once gave. While effusive in her praise of People’s — “We sent a letter to the president seeking a contribution of $10,000, and two weeks later the check came,” she said — Hiller maintained that other previously generous banks have faded away.

“It’s all about metrics and results-based accounting now,” she said. “Bank of America has changed their focus with giving, and Citibank, which used to have a giant bucket load of money to give out, evidently had their (nonprofit) budget drastically cut. Chase for a number of years funded a college access program but they’re not doing it anymore. And each time that goes away, it’s another $20,000 to $25,000 you have to make up.”

Hiller said that the Bridgeport Public Education Fund ended 2015 with a deficit for the first time in its 33-year history.

“What we’re really talking about is, can we continue to exist?” she said. “There are so many challenges right now. Not one of us is not struggling.”

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