When I was informed this issue of iBi would focus on nonprofits, I was thrilled and immediately flooded with ideas for this article. To be honest, my main struggle was trying to narrow down my focus and identifying priorities. Many of you already know that I have spent over 20 years working in the nonprofit field. Specifically, I served emotionally disturbed youth in prison, residential treatment centers and foster care. The work always began with the children, but could not be executed without the partnerships with our communities. In fact, building those community partnerships was the work I enjoyed most, and led me to the Chamber of Commerce. I realized we served the kids best when we had full support from the political, civic, business and neighborhood leaders of the community.

Nonprofits are businesses. No matter what the mission of the nonprofit, you can be confident it employs a skilled and professional workforce. Obviously, nonprofits are charged with zeroing out the books at the end of the year and have no stockholders to compensate, but they must carry forward the balance of some reserve to energize their programming. Professional licensures and a specialized workforce are as relevant to nonprofits as to any of their for-profit counterparts. Accounting, graphics, marketing, computer programming and logistics are all essential to quality and long-lasting service in the workplace. These jobs are not earned without training, high-quality education and long-term investment. Quite simply, non-profit does not equal non-business.

What do you think of when I say, “Nonprofits make a difference in our community.”? My guess is the first thoughts to jump in your mind include themed annual fundraisers, tables full of silent-auction items, and plenty of opportunities to volunteer time and talent. In addition to great advocacy work, would it surprise you to know that the Greater Peoria social service sector is our area’s fifth-largest employer? Fifth! That is, more than 2,500 employed within the 46 surveyed agencies. Now to be fair, that was a sampling of 46 agencies—and only social services. If we were to include all nonprofits, that number would grow, further demonstrating their importance not only to our community, but to our economy. On a broader scale, tax-exempt agencies contributed $887 billion to the U.S economy in 2014, representing 5.5 percent of our annual GDP.

Economic sustainability and growth also depend on a strong nonprofit presence. Nonprofits need phones, copiers, landscaping, office space, vehicles, IT support and more. All of these third-party services attract quality providers and entrepreneurs to fill that space. A dynamic nonprofit sector may offer an even more energized network for these services, due to its profound diversity. And the spinoff impact of these third-party providers is considerable when you consider a dollar is likely to turn over six times within a local economy.

The direct and indirect employment numbers provided by nonprofits’ day-to-day operations are not just numbers. These “numbers” are people. They are our people: our neighbors and our community. The spirit of our economy’s resurgence has not yet hit full stride, but our employment numbers are improving. For those employed in the nonprofit sector, they are able to pay a mortgage, buy a car, enjoy a show and save for their child’s education. The current and future impacts of these investments are difficult to quantify, but the spirit and optimism created are routinely felt if you just take the time to pay attention.

Finally, I mentioned earlier my past service in the nonprofit sector. The fact is, I am still employed as a nonprofit administrator. Yes, a Chamber of Commerce in the U.S. is a nonprofit 501(c)(6). Do we follow business principles as a nonprofit? We represent the 1,100 business owners who collectively employ 65,000 individuals, and we’ve been in business for 105 years—so you better believe we practice solid business principles. As Chamber of Commerce president, I am not an accountant, politician, lawyer, small business owner, manufacturer, social worker or salesman… I am simply one who serves and appreciates all of them. The Chamber’s interest in our nonprofits is not just one of charity, but a recognition that our quality of life, vibrant growth and the development of our future workforce depends on the strong services they provide.

As residents of the Greater Peoria area and beyond, you can do your part: take a tour or attend an event for an organization you want to learn more about, volunteer for a nonprofit committee or board, and encourage your employees and colleagues to do the same. iBi