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Storm Chasers

Nonprofits Adapt to the Changing Economic Climate

By Lawrence Schumacher
Photography by John Linn

  The Leaf River Ag Service was among the countless casualities of the 2010 Wadena tornado.

A 2010 F4 tornado or a tumultuous economic firestorm. 

Examining the caseload at the Otter Tail-Wadena Community Action Council, it’s hard to tell which event made the greatest impact.

For years, the anti-poverty agency offered its standard list of programs—weatherization, family services, energy assistance, Head Start—and its members did everything they could to offer a hand to poor residents of the two counties it serves. 

Then the recession arrived, and it became clear that despite the nonprofit’s best efforts, conditions were sliding the wrong way. “Seeing the explosion of demand from people who didn’t need our services before forced us to rethink our role,” said Davis Leino-Mills, executive director of the New York Mills-based nonprofit. “We saw that we needed a new model.” 

That new model included directing $25,000 in federal stimulus funds to the community kitchen. Run by Stimulating Economic Progress, another central Minnesota nonprofit, the success of the kitchen led to the opening of a cafe that serves locally raised food, a marketing association for locally grown produce, and new businesses selling that same produce at farmers’ markets. 

In the wake of the last two-plus years of economic hardship, Community Action Council isn’t alone. Nonprofits throughout Minnesota are rethinking not only what they can accomplish, but also how they are structured. More than half of Minnesota nonprofits surveyed by the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN) this past July indicated increases in demands for services, even as a similar majority report continued declines in revenue. 

And while MCN’s recent survey suggests the state’s nonprofit economy is beginning to stabilize, significant uncertainty remains, according to Jon Pratt, the Council’s executive director. “It would still be helpful to know when the real recovery will kick in,” he said. “For Minnesota, the other big shoe to drop is the $6 billion state budget deficit. Even if the economy picks back up, we’re going to see more cutbacks in funding for nonprofits.”

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