Nonprofits: The Berkshires' best-kept secret


PITTSFIELD -- Do you know how many nonprofit organizations are located in Berkshire County? Care to guess?

According to a study recently commissioned by the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, the county contained 1,106 nonprofit organizations in 2010.

When I moved to the Berkshires 10 years ago and asked that question, nobody could actually give me a clear answer. As I went to open a bank account, buy a car, rent a house, find the closest supermarket and so forth -- I asked that question time and time again. The only consistent answer I received was "I don't know."

What they weren't saying was, "why should I know?"

And why should they? Here's the simple answer: the nonproft sector has an impact on a community without the community even realizing it. Here is the kind of impact Berkshire County nonprofits have on the community, according to the Chamber of Commerce study. Mind you, these numbers are based only on the 349 of those 1,106 nonprofits that filed forms with the Internal Revenue Service that are used by tax-exempt organizations, nonexempt charitable trusts and certain political organizations.

n They provide affordable, often free, public services and benefits.

n They create jobs -- more than 24,000 both directly and indirectly.

n They spend money boosting the economy, $1.3 billion annually, according to the report, which creates an overall economic impact of $2.2 billion.

n They attract additional "consumers" and "talent," like tourists, professionals, young families, second home owners, and donors, who spend and invest money locally and spread the word about the Berkshires.

While these statistics hopefully answer the question about why the community and its people should know about its nonprofit neighbors, they don't address the fact that the benefit is mutual. The community is a major source of donations, both cash and in-kind, for nonprofits, and provides volunteers, board members, advocates, and clients. But that can only happen if the community is aware that a nonprofit, say the Barrington Stage Company, for example, is actually a nonprofit organization in the first place.

That's why every nonprofit should educate people and the community not only about its existence, but also about its nonprofit status and what that designation means. The community needs to know a nonprofit's raison d'etre -- how it intends to achieve its mission by providing people with high quality products or services versus producing as much profit as possible.

Unfortunately, those of us who aren't intimately familiar with the nonprofit world operate under the misconception that nonprofits aren't "real businesses" because they're tax exempt organizations where making a profit isn't the ultimate goal.

While this couldn't be more false -- nonprofit businesses are as real as any other business -- there is something to be said about the need for nonprofits to run their operations a little more like their healthy for-profit brothers and sisters.

And, my hope is that my bimonthly column will help to do just that. Starting with my next column, we'll talk about many aspects of nonprofit operations, challenges, best practices, and much more.

I also hope that this column will help to educate the public further about the vital role that nonprofits play in our community, and strengthen their support and involvement.

Comments, questions or suggestions are welcome.

Natasha Dresner is a nonprofit development consultant and mentor with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Agawam. She can be reached at


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