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Volunteers help prepare meals for Meals-on-Wheels delivery.

Volunteers help prepare meals for Meals-on-Wheels delivery.

Why giving for core mission support matters

Anne Phillips, Foundation director of grantmaking, and Melinda Mosier, director of donor services, on why core operating support is the best kind of support you can give to nonprofits

As you read this, a nonprofit organization is keeping a mother and children safe from domestic abuse. An elder knows that someone from Meals-on-Wheels will be coming to check on him — and deliver a hot lunch. A watershed critical to clean drinking water is being protected. A downtown is coming back to life — with help from arts and economic development nonprofits. Nonprofit media are keeping citizens informed about the news of the day. A child is getting dental care. A New American is learning English. A young boy has a mentor.

Nonprofits are at the heart of civil society, tending to our most pressing needs, caring for the most vulnerable among us. And yet most struggle, year-over-year, to maintain enough funding to carry out missions that make our communities healthier, happier, safer, more vibrant and prosperous.

Nonprofits not only need our support — but they need support that is not earmarked for discrete items, programs or projects, but that funds their critical core missions.

It can be tempting to direct charitable dollars only to specific items, projects or programs — and away from “overhead,” like staffing, facilities and materials. It is absolutely understandable — and commendable — for people to want to know where their money is going and to want to quantify its impact. But we would encourage generous people to take a holistic approach when they think about what it takes for nonprofits to do what they do for our communities.

If you are going to make a donation to a food pantry, for instance, it might be natural to think about restricting your donation to pay only for food. Your desire to help feed your neighbors who are struggling is, after all, what prompted you to make the donation. But if no one supported the food pantry’s staffing, rent, electricity and outreach — in addition to the food for its shelves and coolers — there would be no food pantry. There would be a bag of groceries on a street corner.

We understand this, intuitively, about every other kind of business. Author Vu Le, who writes extensively about the nonprofit sector, puts it this way:

“No one goes to a bakery and says ‘I want to buy cake, but I don’t want any of this $20 I am giving you to pay for the vanilla or the electricity for the oven or for your chef’s salary.’” But too frequently, we have been encouraged to do exactly that when we think about giving to nonprofits.

When the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation surveyed our grantees with help from the Center for Effective Philanthropy, we got this message loud and clear: Nonprofits need more funding that supports their core missions.

The Charitable Foundation increased this kind of support during the most recent recession. Other funding streams for critical services were drying up, and nonprofits desperately needed an influx of flexible capital to help fill budget gaps. The reality is that funding that disappeared during that recession is, for the most part, not coming back. Nonprofits are doing more with less, facing decreased resources and increased need for services — and they badly need more flexibility from funders. Last year, the Foundation changed its competitive Community Grants program so that all the largest grants from that program are for operating support, and the vast majority are now multiyear grants. Many generous people who hold donor-advised funds at the Foundation regularly recommend grants from those funds for core operating support.

No matter how much you have to give to support the nonprofits that you know are doing critical work in your community, we encourage you to give to support their whole missions — and to feel great about doing that. Food pantries, after all, need more than food.