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How About More with More?

Miles Dickson in front of a lightbulb wall mural
Jeff Scheid
Jeff Scheid Photography
Miles Dickson, president and CEO of Nevada GrantLab

Nevada GrantLab surveys the state’s nonprofit sector and finds it lacking

Ask Nevada’s nonprofit directors, and they’ll tell you their unofficial mantra is, “Do more with less.” The prevailing philosophy among donors, they say, is that there’s no reason to keep giving the same funds to the same organizations for the same work year after year if it doesn’t result in different outcomes.

This kind of thinking led to the birth, in 2020, of Nevada GrantLab. Consultant Seth Wongsavit, who has worked on the project, says the nonprofit came about in response to two key challenges, one long-standing and one immediate: “the historic lack of grants infrastructure in the state of Nevada, and the urgent need to uplift that capacity given the flow of federal relief and recovery funds.”

In 2023, the GrantLab published its Nonprofit Sector Analysis. The report compared San Antonio, New Orleans, and Orlando — cities with similar populations, demographics, and economies — with Las Vegas. Working with Guidestar, a national organization that tracks nonprofits, the GrantLab used tax records for its comparison.

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According to GrantLab Analyst Martin Suman, nonprofits were considered active if they had $1 of revenue, $1 of expenses, and at least one employee. By that measure, Las Vegas had 343 active nonprofits. Out of the four cities compared, Las Vegas had the smallest nonprofit sector, with 15 nonprofits per 100,000 residents. New Orleans had 51 nonprofits per 100,000 residents, despite New Orleans having less than half the population of Las Vegas.

“We always blame sales tax,” says Marcia Blake, executive director of Helping Hands of Vegas Valley. “These other places don’t have that either. We’re still taxing people. We’re taxing tourists … The positive side is that the number of people we serve with limited funds is amazing. When you have $2.4 million (as better-funded organizations do), you don’t get creative.”

Miles Dickson, president and CEO of Nevada GrantLab, says the numbers quantify local nonprofit directors’ feeling of pushing a boulder uphill. “A big part of why we wanted to do this report was to provide, for the first time as far as we know, real data about how small Nevada’s nonprofit sector is, despite the fact that we rely on it every single day.”

In November, United Way of Southern Nevada and Nevada GrantLab coproduced an event at the Discovery Children’s Museum to discuss the report’s findings and ways to scale up the region’s nonprofit sector.

“It’s so important that people understand the importance of a strong nonprofit sector,” said CEO and President of United Way of Southern Nevada, Julian High. “(United Way’s) job is to bring people together and to find solutions like community leaders and business leaders. Collaboration and partnership are the way forward.”

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“When people hear that Nevada HAND has low rents, they don’t necessarily understand how we’re able to have our rents lower than market, and they assume (it’s because) we’re able to keep building costs low or that we’re getting free land,” said Nevada HAND president and CEO Audra Hamernik, who was one of three nonprofit directors on a panel discussion at the event. “We’re not the three little pigs, we don’t have any construction techniques. We’re competing for land. What makes affordable housing affordable is the financing that we get. Our debt is lower, so we’re able to charge lower rents.”

Another challenge that the nonprofit leaders cited was funders’ wanting most money to go into programming.

“The challenge sometimes is, when we insist on pushing money to programming, we miss this really important opportunity, which is to build stronger nonprofits that can then generate more revenue and more resources,” Dickson says. “Unintentionally we have forced our nonprofits into this starvation cycle.”

On the bright side, he adds, a modest amount of funding in an underfunded sector, along with fewer nonprofits servicing that sector, could lead to “catalytic” change. For example, he says, in Las Vegas, it’s possible to get all 97 organizations that serve healthcare into one conference room on the Strip — unlike in states with hundreds or thousands of nonprofits in that field.

The hope is that the GrantLab can get that ball rolling.

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Correction: The online version of this story has been updated to accurately reflect Marcia Blake's statement that some local charities have $2.4 million in funding, not $2.4 billion.