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Clamoring to Care

Syracuse suffers no dearth of well-meaning nonprofits and citizens’ groups. The challenge is figuring out who they all are and which are having an impact.

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The new Central New York Philanthropy Center. (photo: Chuck Wainwright)

For a relatively small city, Syracuse has a reputation for being very “service rich,” with a proliferation of nonprofits and community groups working, in many cases, on similar issues. “It’s an unconscious thing,” says Judy Mower ’80 MA (SPsy)/’84 PhD (SPsy), a management consultant for many civic organizations. “When people see something that needs doing, before you know it you’ll have three or four individuals taking initiative to tackle that particular problem. And sometimes they don’t work in awareness of each other, so you’ll get three or four groups that want to tackle the pollution of Onondaga Creek, and three or four groups that want to build bike lanes or work with the homeless.”

Mower attributes the density of the city’s nonprofit sector to a legacy of social activism — extending back to the early 19th century, when Syracuse was a hotbed for religious revivalism and new ideas about racism, women’s rights, and abolitionism. “It’s almost like the civic DNA in this town,” says Mower. “Syracuse in the 1840s was like Berkeley, California, in the 1960s. It was a real cauldron of discussion about social change.”

Many of the civic groups at work in Syracuse today were founded in the ’60s and ’70s, when major organizations such as Catholic Charities had particularly strong leadership and federal funding was readily available for social programs. Organizations formed out of neighborhood churches, too, often served highly localized populations, without necessarily coordinating with other groups doing similar work elsewhere in the city. As a result, Syracuse developed a kind of patchwork of organizations that has become tough to sustain in these tighter economic times, says Frank Lazarski ’84 MA (PA), president of the United Way of Central New York. In other words, the forces pushing consolidation and streamlining in government are having a similar effect on the nonprofit sector.

“Before you know it you’ll have three or four individuals taking initiative.”

The United Way, says Lazarski, is “always trying to get the organizations to work better together, to form a network of services, so  there is less duplication and more focus on the needs of the individual or families.” He cites one recent case where United Way hired a consultant to help merge the Rape Crisis Center and Vera House — two organizations founded in the ’70s with similar missions — into a single entity under the name of Vera House. Even when organizations don’t formally merge, United Way is encouraging them to coordinate efforts not only on services but in back-office operations like accounting, purchasing, and public relations. In this year’s grant making, United Way is explicitly favoring organizations that are banding together to serve a specific population.

A similar effort toward consolidation and collaboration is underway at the Central New York Community Foundation, which annually gives more than $5 million to organizations serving the region. “We have prompted these discussions over the past two years by creating a Strategic Partnership Fund that helps organizations with this process,” says John Eberle ’03 MA (PA), vice president of the Community Foundation. Grants through this fund support organizations pursuing mergers and consolidations as well as joint programming and other types of collaborative ventures.

Last fall, the Community Foundation went a step further in its goal to improve coordination among Syracuse’s nonprofits, with the opening of the foundation’s new home base: the former University Club building in downtown Syracuse, now rechristened as the Central New York Philanthropy Center. Along with the Community Foundation’s offices, the center already has three tenants and provides meeting space for local nonprofits — offering Syracuse’s many community organizations a way to be literally at the same table.

—Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers is a contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and the author, most recently, of The Complete Singer-Songwriter. 
This article appeared in the spring 2011 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2011 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.