The splendor of the Adirondacks is in full glory as I savor a sunset at Heaven Hill, an historic home near Lake Placid once owned by an heir to the Schlitz Brewing fortune. It is a summery-perfect evening for the Adirondack Foundation’s annual event appreciating its supporters, which now has finally wound down. On many visits to the region, I have never seen anything quite as lovely as this golden light illuminating the meadow, apple orchard and forest as the sculpturally elegant Adirondacks rise in the background against a sky growing rosy pink.
But the Adirondack Foundation staff are quick to point out that life in the region is not all beautiful scenery and garden parties. Behind glimpses of paradise enjoyed by seasonal visitors are the real-world lives of many residents, who struggle to make a living and watch their children move away in search of better economic opportunities. “Some towns here see a poverty rate up to 50 percent,” explains Matt Brandi, donor services officer at the foundation (who left in September).
Persistent poverty and other serious problems was one catalyst for creating the Adirondack Nonprofit Network (ANN), a robust coalition of 18 organizations ranging from historical and arts groups to providers of human services.
The goal of the network, says Adirondack Foundation president Cali Brooks, is to strengthen each organization as well as providing a broader perspective on regional issues. “All of us are doing important work and we can do it better working collaboratively,” she explains.
Brooks credits Blue Mountain Center co-director Harriet Barlow with the idea for the group, which was launched at a 2008 meeting at BMC as the financial crisis threatened the future of many organizations. Andy Robinson, an organizational trainer specializing in nonprofits (and BMC alum), suggested action plans for survival.
“It turned out we all survived,” says the Adirondack Foundation’s communications officer Chris Morris, “and we began to ask ourselves: Why did it take a crisis for us to sit down together and learn from each other. So we began meeting every year.”
“BMC hosts us and nurtures us. It’s a cozy, beautiful setting, which helps us see things in new ways,” notes Brooks, adding with a grin, “Of course, Harriet schedules us for the height of black fly season, because she knows that we can stand it. “
“It’s two or three days when you can leave all your challenges at the office and be recharged, getting inspiration from other people,” adds Morris, who is particularly grateful for all the help the group offered when he first started his job. Now he regularly swaps ideas with ANN colleagues on practicalities such as social media strategies.
An emerging leaders group has also sprung from ANN, giving younger staff the chance to compare experiences with one another. “We stay in touch, looking for ways to support one another’s work and share resources,” says Brandi. “It helps us be smarter in how we spend our money and our time.”
Holly Wolff, board president of Pendragon Theatre in Saranac Lake, says, “What I love about ANN is the chance to meet new people in a casual environment. It’s a connected group with a lot in common. You can ask someone, ‘Have you ever had a situation like this?’”
Pendragon stages a professional summer season of both classic and contemporary work, as well as touring local schools and running a Young Playwright’s Festival.
“Knowing your peers is very important,” Wolff emphasizes, “especially in a remote region” where people don’t often run into each other.
Brooks outlines three key goals for ANN:
- Professional development
- Raising the profile of nonprofits in the region
“The nonprofit sector has a big overall impact in the region,” Brooks notes. That’s the conclusion of a 2011 study by the State University of New York at Oswego commissioned by ANN. Thirty six nonprofits in the region accounted for $422 million in economic activity, according to the study, and directly employed 1593 people, which translates into $6.2 million in payroll taxes.
“I believe that helped government officials here look at nonprofits differently than before, when there had been grumbling about these organizations not paying taxes.”
ANN’s culture of collaboration stands in contrast to the nonprofit sector in some places, where turf battles over funding and programs erect tall fences between organizations. The face-to-face connection among Adirondack groups is a tremendous asset, says Brooks. “The level of professionalism and understanding about the region rises as friendships flourish. It’s great to see the staff of a mental health organization and an environmental organization getting to know each other.”
This sense of unity is what makes it possible to tackle major issues together. “Poverty affects every organization, not just those working on poverty alleviation,” Brooks explains. Improving economic opportunity can increase audiences for arts organizations, for instance, and increase concern about environmental dangers.
Looking ahead, Brooks suggests, “Another issues for the Adirondacks is diversity—how do we make the region more welcoming to all kinds of people.”