Connecticut’s nonprofit organizations do a lot more than serve the state’s neediest residents.
They help drive the economy in multiple ways, supporting underserved communities with a variety of programs and opportunities, including housing, food, child care, healthcare, technology, transportation, and workforce training.
“When businesses come together with nonprofits, other institutions, and their neighbors, and develop solutions to the pressing issues in our community, we all thrive,” United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut chief operating officer Stefanie Boles said April 30 at CBIA’s Connecticut Economic Update 2021.
“When our neighbors, our family, our friends have the ability to work, succeed, and provide, that adds to the economic growth in our state.
“It helps our businesses grow, it attracts others to the state, and it improves our communities.”
Boles took part in a discussion with fellow nonprofit leaders about the ways nonprofits impact the state's economy.
Peter Hurst, president and CEO of the Greater New England Minority Supplier Development Council, moderated the discussion, which also featured Samuel Gray, president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Hartford, and Connecticut Food Bank/Foodshare senior director of network strategy Miranda Muro.
“Nonprofit organizations play a vital role in helping communities by providing critical school services that contribute to economic stability and mobility,” Gray said. “What we do strengthens our community in so many different ways.”
Gray said many of the parents the club serves are essential workers, a key factor behind the club's decision to reopen its doors in July 2020.
“We made the pivotal decision to be there for the families and kids who need us the most,” Gray said.
The club also helps young men and women prepare for a career through workforce readiness, college and career preparation, a focus on academic success, and health and wellness programs.
“When you look at Boys and Girls Clubs throughout Connecticut, we all have the same mission—to enable all of our young people to realize their full potential as productive, responsible, and caring citizens,” Gray said.
The club provides crucial tools and skills that help members get hired, he added.
Muro said corporations should care about nonprofits because “we’re all connected in our communities and if one of us is successful, we’re all successful.”
She notes that Connecticut Foodbank/Foodshare serves 700 community sites, including soup kitchens across the state and large-scale distributions at Rentschler Field.
And one thing Muro noted about the people she serves—”they want to contribute.”
“They have so much to offer,” she said. “They need that chance, they need the opportunity.
"They need programs like workforce development. They want to feel good and they want to contribute.”
The coronavirus pandemic made operations difficult tough for nonprofit organizations, who were called to help a growing community last spring as more people lost their jobs.
Boles said the United Way scrambled to create a COVID-19 relief fund to help their partners.
“We were able to raise a significant amount of resources and push that out to our nonprofit partners so they could meet the needs that they were seeing,” she said.
At the Boys and Girls Clubs, Gray said the organization pivoted to provide services for “children and families that need it the most."
But perhaps no one witnessed the pandemic’s impact on Connecticut residents more than Muro and her team.
“There was a 30% increase in food insecurity last year in Connecticut,” she said. “That means over a half-million people didn’t have access to enough food.”
Food Bank/Foodshare saw many people they had not previously served.
“These are people who were working, some multiple jobs, but found themselves all of a sudden unable to do what they knew and loved to do,” Muro said.
“People who previously donated to our organization were in line at Rentschler Field, asking for help.”
They were able to help those people, Muro said, but the need still continues.
“Hunger is a hidden issue,” she said. “You can’t tell by looking at someone that they don’t have enough food.”
Every year, the United Way releases its ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed) report, spotlighting the number of households with incomes that fall below what is needed to pay for basic necessities such as housing, food, child care, healthcare, technology, and transportation.
Boles explained these are families who are working, often multiple jobs. While their incomes are above the federal poverty level, they still have difficulty making ends meet.
Boles said these workers “are vital to keeping the state’s economy running smoothly.”
“There are ALICE households in every county in Connecticut,” she said.
During the pandemic, some of these families have slipped below the poverty level, she said. Other families who were above the threshold have found themselves for the first time needing services.
“It’s been devastating to see,” Boles said.
The United Way is working with other agencies, including the Boys and Girls Clubs and Connecticut Food Bank/Foodshare, to address these needs, she said.
Nonprofits do much more than help the neediest, Gray said.
“Nonprofits attract other employers to our community,” he said. “Think about how Foodshare helps, how comprehensive our United Way is.
“That helps the local chamber of commerce attract businesses to our areas, and that’s part of the value of nonprofits.”
Muro said she’d welcome a day when “people don’t wait in line in a public parking lot for free food.”
“To get there, we need a willingness to collaborate, to dream big, and to have some clear goals across sectors that we can all work towards,” she said.
Boles reinforced the need to collaboration across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to reduce the need for her organization's services.
“It’s something we have to do together, it's not just one one entity—government, business, or nonprofits,” she said.
“It’s all of us together determining what we want for our community and how to get there. We’d all love to be out of business and see our communities be able to provide for themselves.”
But Gray, noting that the Boys and Girls Clubs of Hartford, founded in 1860, was the first in the nation, said he has no intention of closing the doors.
“For 161 years, we have been committed to the greater Hartford community, to doing the good work, and helping those young people be everything they can be in our community,” Gray said.
“We’re not going out of business.”
The Connecticut Economic Update 2021 was made possible through the generous support of KeyBank with additional support from AVANGRID, Berkshire Bank, and JP Morgan Chase.