Imagine your community without nonprofits. Essential to the quality of life in rural towns and urban cities, nonprofits provide services from soup kitchens to after-school programs and animal shelters to the arts. Nonprofits positively impact the lives of children and adults and are the fiber that knots communities together.
In Georgia, there are more than 42,000 registered nonprofits that employ approximately 7 percent of the state’s workforce. With a mission to serve, nonprofit professionals often feel overwhelmed and underappreciated, especially as their workload increases, financial resources dwindle, and fundraising quotas continue to climb.
Help for those who help others is the focus of the South Georgia Nonprofit Network, Inc. (SGNN). A grassroots effort that began in 2017, SGNN provides professional development opportunities for leaders of nonprofit organizations in South Georgia.
“From a broad perspective, SGNN aims to raise the profile of nonprofits in the communities they serve and increase the appreciation for the services they provide,” says Steve McWilliams, SGNN executive director.
The SGNN concept started when more than 60 nonprofit executives gathered for training and networking at a 2017 conference sponsored by the Harley Langdale Jr. Foundation in Valdosta.
“The initial conference demonstrated that nonprofit professionals want and appreciate formal training,” says McWilliams. “They want to be with like-minded professionals. One surprising discovery was that many of them had never met, even those who were from the same community. There was a disconnect between leaders in the nonprofit community.”
With feedback from the first conference, a small group began to formalize plans for a regional organization.
“The conference evaluations confirmed that we were on to something that needed to be fostered,” says McWilliams. “There was a desire for a more structured group that could provide training and networking opportunities within the region.”
More than 100 nonprofit professionals participated in last year’s SGNN fall conference, and McWilliams expects more in attendance at this year’s event, which will focus the value and importance of storytelling, branding, marketing, and public relations.
Topics at past conferences have included leadership, collaboration, developing efficiencies, recruiting board members, grant writing, managing a small staff, strategic planning, and multi-generational volunteers.
While professional development is a vital component at each conference, McWilliams says raising the visibility of nonprofits and networking are also important goals.
“One of the things we hope to do is raise the consciousness of elected and volunteer leaders in rural nonprofits that professional development for their staff, especially the executive director, is a priority,” says McWilliams, who has more than 40 years of nonprofit management experience. “Every nonprofit should have some level of funding in its budget to allow leadership to participate in a professional development organization; whether it is SGNN or another organization that is providing proper training and allows them to network, get refreshed, and understand what is trending.”
Steve Jaramillo, SGNN treasurer and associate director for Lowndes Advocacy Resource Center (LARC), says he finds networking a rewarding part of SGNN membership. “One of the biggest benefits is simply the fact that you get to know and speak with peers from different areas that may be dealing with similar issues. It gives the ability to put a face to a name and then begin a conversation. Those conversations could be beneficial for all of us.”
From a geographical perspective, SGNN places importance on addressing challenges impacting rural communities.
“Across South Georgia, there are serious and complicated issues related to poverty, hunger, low literacy, substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, and numerous health inequities,” says Zoe Myers, executive director of the Cook County Family Connection and SGNN board member. “These issues are even more challenging in rural areas where there are fewer resources, transportation barriers, and lack of essential services.”
Because rural communities often have limited resources, Myers says, strong nonprofit organizations and collaborative partnerships are critical to bridging the gaps in social, health, and educational services.
“For example, our nonprofit collaborative in Cook County has over 40 partners from schools and colleges, churches, civic clubs, healthcare agencies, law enforcement, local and state government, social service agencies, and others who work collectively to bridge local gaps in services,” she says. “Proving the theory that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, collaborative processes and partnerships are crucial to the work on nonprofits in rural areas.”