Day in and day out, nonprofit organizations play a critical role in the life of Charles County. They serve the needy, provide emergency services, protect natural resources, involve kids in outdoors activities, help people with disabilities, combat domestic violence, and promote the arts. That is only a sample of what they do.

Now for the first time a spotlight is being turned on the nonprofit sector as a whole. The Charles County Charitable Trust has launched the Nonprofit Economic and Social Impact Study, which aims to develop a picture of the range and activities of nonprofits and to take measure of their contributions to the local economy and to the community’s quality of life.

The principal tool for the study is an extensive survey, which was mailed out on June 5 to all the county’s nonprofit charitable organizations. The deadline for completing and returning the forms is June 30.

According to Vivian Mills, the Trust’s executive director, the survey covers all the relevant areas of nonprofit operations.  It asks for information ranging from budget and financial activity to fundraising experience, employment, number of volunteers, use of technology, and marketing efforts. It also invites the respondents to indicate what they see as the major needs in the community and to describe their organization’s particular challenges and accomplishments.

Mills said that, while participation is voluntary, the goal is for a generous response that will assure a realistic picture of the nonprofit sector’s role.

When the results have been compiled and evaluated by the end of summer, the Trust will issue a report for widespread distribution. The data will appear only in aggregate form, omitting identification of the participating organizations.

When asked how the study came about, Mills said that much is known about the two other main sectors-business and government-but all too little is known about the nonprofit realm. It has been growing steadily, here as throughout the country, and at the same time it has been subject to growing demands for services and increasing regulatory oversight and public scrutiny. To find out how it is faring under such pressures, she noted, it is far preferable to collect data from the source itself than to make assumptions.

“This project is important from many perspectives,” Sandra McGraw, the Trust’s president, said. “One involves our responsibility for managing the county government’s annual nonprofit grant award program. The clearer our picture of the nonprofit sector, the better informed our decision-making will be.”

In creating the impact study, the Trust invited support from the county’s Department of Economic Development, which responded with a contribution to help cover the costs. In addition, Maryland Nonprofits and the Trust signed a cooperative agreement. A statewide nonprofit in its 25th year, Maryland Nonprofits has carried out research into various aspects of nonprofit work. It provided a professional consultant, Sawida Kamara, to coordinate the Charles County project. Kamara has an extensive background in the design and implementation of surveys and in their analysis. 

At the start this spring, the Trust assembled a Project Team made up of local leaders to help think through the study’s goals and the content of the survey. Its members include Mike Belllis, Charles County United Way; Claudia Bellony-Atanga, Department of Economic Development; Shannon Bland, Funding Information Network; Judy Crawford, Arts Alliance; Joan Curley, Zonta Club; Cara Fogarty, Nonprofit Institute; Julie Simpson, Port Tobacco River Conservancy; and M. Janice Wilson, NAACP. In addition, three independent testers were recruited to give the survey form a final review.

The Charles County Charitable Trust was incorporated in June 2016 and is itself a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable organization. Its mission is to help improve the effectiveness of the county’s nonprofit sector. It is in the process of forming a Presidents’ Council to draw together the chief volunteer leaders of nonprofits and is planning a forum on provision of pro bono services to nonprofits. Announcements of the grant awards for fiscal year 2018, starting July 1, will be made before the end of June.