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Nonprofits vital to Whidbey Island life

Alex Beust inspects a few pieces of clothing while working the register at the Good Cheer Thrift Store.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Alex Beust inspects a few pieces of clothing while working the register at the Good Cheer Thrift Store.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

When it comes to circulating a buck in the local economy, nonprofits are not only on the receiving end.

With a whopping 473 registered nonprofit organizations — roughly five per 1,000 people in Island County — one may think that’s a lot to support by a county with a relatively low population, a fact particularly true on South Whidbey.

“I firmly believe that South Whidbey has more nonprofits per capita than any place on Earth,” said Langley business owner Lynn Willeford. “Maybe it’s because we live on an island and can easily identify … our community, the people we are willing to care for.”

Whatever the reason be for the large number of nonprofits, the nonprofit sector has a significant impact on the local economy.

“Our nonprofits provide jobs, every kind of family support and the opportunity to volunteer,” Willeford said.

“They help smooth out the rough times when a large employer needs to lay people off, or when seasonal work is slow — important in an economy based a lot on tourism.”

Willeford should know. Over the past two decades she was a founding member or served on the boards of a number of South Whidbey service organizations.

In this community, nonprofits cover everything from health and human services to arts and cultural education. The profiles of these organizations couldn’t be more diverse.

Among the highest revenue generating groups in Island County are Good Cheer, Habitat for Humanity and WAIF, but also the Hedgebrook writers retreat and the Elizabeth George Foundation.

Those organizations have a significant economic impact, especially when considering the leveraged impact of donations and volunteer hours. As private donors and businesses think about resources, some have realized that the investment in the sector isn’t about feel-good. It’s about economic impact and investing in the community.

While just a few years ago, nonprofits heavily relied on government funding and grants, they have diversified funding and rely much more on local support.

So what do donors get for their money?

Creating jobs

Volunteers outnumber paid staff by far in all organizations, but Island County nonprofits employ an estimated 704 people, according to the A-to-Z database available from Sno-Isle Libraries. That’s 4.7 percent of all jobs in Island County.

Ron Nelson, executive director of the Island County Economic Development Council, said that determining exact payroll is difficult because it’s not tracked. However, he estimates that it is roughly $28,015,000.

That payroll is being spent on property taxes, at restaurants and at gas stations, “money that’s flowing through our community,” he said.

One good example for this is the South Whidbey Children’s Center.

Chris Barker, the children’s center’s executive director, said donors allow the childcare center to make quality services available to families regardless of income level while giving employees living-wage pay that’s staying in the community.

The child care facility employs 17 full-time employees and has a commitment to its employees to pay the highest wages possible leading to higher staff retention rates.

“Our teachers live locally and spend their income at local businesses,” she said.

The center also has a commitment to support local businesses.

“Whenever possible we shop locally for the center, purchasing supplies, food, printing and equipment from local vendors,” Barker said.

“Recently, we were granted by the Boeing Community Fund for a large outside renovation project. We choose a local contractor, Leroy Boren, to work on the project.”

A skilled workforce

Willeford added nonprofits are also a training ground for people.

“They keep our retired people active and involved and provide young people with their first taste of the joy of volunteering,” she said. “Volunteering with nonprofits gives us a chance to learn new skills, re-ignite old passions and meet new people.”

Nelson added that the high reliance on volunteers gives people in particular much needed experience to make them competitive on the job market.

“The South Whidbey Commons provides much needed employment for our youth,” he said.

“The recession greatly increased youth unemployment as jobs normally filled by young adults were suddenly filled by adults laid off from construction and other higher paying jobs. Most devastating is this resulted in lost opportunities for our youth to get the experience necessary to get not just higher paying jobs, but any jobs at all.”

Helping neighbors

Nelson also said that, based on the data collected by the National Center for Charitable Statistics, Island County nonprofits generated a revenue of $47 million.

The data is compiled from IRS Form 990 filings in 2010, 2011 and 2012. It does not show the amounts for religious organizations.

The majority of organizations pushed an average of 70 to 85 percent of those funds back into the community in form of services, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics.

These services help enrich the island as a place to live.

“By supporting family systems in our own back yard, we support the economy in general,” Barker explained. “Many families are now second generation, coming back to the island to raise their families and bring their spending dollars.”

Property values are aided by having nonprofits such as Whidbey Island Center of the Arts or Whidbey Children’s Theater enrich the cultural landscape.

Nonprofits also address social issues such as mental health or substance abuse problems or help people in abusive relationships, contributing to the quality of life, health and safety that is an important factor in economic development.

“The nonprofits in our community serve as a safety net not only for the clients we serve but also for the community at large,” said Kathy McLaughlin McCabe, executive director for Good Cheer food bank, which operates two thrift stores.

“Crime rates are lower in South Whidbey compared to similar communities our size … In referring to Good Cheer’s role in the community, hungry people don’t need to steal to get the food they need.”

As government services and federally funded programs have been slashed in the aftermath of the recession, nonprofits picked up some of the gaps.

But that doesn’t mean the recession bypassed the nonprofits. Nonprofit leaders said that the recession led to more need for services and less funding, requiring nonprofits to do more with less.

“All of the nonprofits I founded or are otherwise affiliated with have seen their numbers of people needing their services rise year after year,” Willeford said.

“As far as I know, donations from this generous community have continued to keep pace with that need. However, I know that other nonprofits have really struggled, and some had to re-trench to just their first, non-grant-dependent, goals.”

McLaughlin McCabe said the food bank is serving more families than ever in its 50-year history. Recently, families in need have increased and in January, 928 families used he Food Bank.

“Even though more families than ever are using our food bank we have been able to stay on budget … Reasons being our community responds to our needs, plus we have a system that allows us to adjust to supply and demand.

“Because we are resourceful and responsible we have been able to uphold our commitment of working towards creating a hunger-free community,” McLaughlin McCabe said.

Impact on tax bill

Nelson said there is another factor that is important to all of us. Nonprofits reduce our tax burden.

“Think about how much higher the tax rate would increase to fulfill needs provided by nonprofits,” he said. Churches and food banks provide free meals to the needy. Habitat for Humanity helps those who need shelter. New Leaf provides jobs for the disabled. Senior Services of Island County provides support to our older residents.

School foundations provide funding for education programs and scholarships.

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