The holiday season has barely passed, and my mailbox is already filling up with requests for donations from area charitable organizations. Believe it or not, more than 850 non-profit groups-arts, history, human service, religious, medical, educational, environmental-are registered in Sarasota County. That's 60 percent more per 100,000 residents than the statewide number, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics. (Manatee County, in comparison, has around 600.) During the annual appeals season, it seems like I heard from half of them.

It's been a rocky few years for fundraisers. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported last October that contributions to the nation's largest charities declined in 2002 for the first time in a dozen years. And local charities sent out alarm signals last November that while demand for services was way, way up, donations were falling precipitously. With potential donors uncertain about the roller coaster economy and a ballooning number of local charities from which to choose, are there too many non-profits in this town?

"It's true that there are organizations here that shouldn't be non-profits," says Wendy Hopkins, program director at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. For example? "A child dies of a disease and the family starts a non-profit organization when national organizations already exist that deal with these very issues. Do we really need duplicating diabetes foundations in this town, or so many organizations that assist families with medical needs-F.A.C.E., Make-A-Wish, Suncoast Center for Independent Living, plus six or seven others? The organizations will say, 'Oh no, we're not the same.' But when you examine them, they have minute shifts in focus."

Wait a minute, says Debra Jacobs, president of the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation. While it's true that Children's Haven, United Cerebral Palsy, Loveland Center and Easter Seals, for example, all aid the developmentally disabled, each serves them differently. "Do they have overlapping services? Yes. But you can have the issue of parental and geographical choice. You think, if they all get together, we'd save money. But that's like saying all restaurants should merge."

The major area foundations addressed the issue head on in 1999 when they formed the Agency Collaboration Fund, and asked SCOPE (Sarasota Openly Plans for Excellence) to manage it. The fund acts as matchmaker, providing a neutral third-party facilitator to walk interested groups through all the issues they need to consider: "How to integrate everything at once-all of the social workers, all of the attorneys, all of the stationery, all of the costs that you might not have thought of," explains Hopkins.

SCOPE had already helped facilitate the merger between Volunteer Center and Volunteer Center South that resulted in Volunteer Connections. "One thing we discovered is that it really is a board decision, not a CEO's," says SCOPE executive director Tim Dutton. "We came to appreciate how difficult and challenging creating mergers are because of the passion for the mission and commitment for the people being served."

So far, only three or four potential unions have been explored through the Agency Collaboration Fund, and only one has taken place-last year's merger between the Family Counseling Center and Child Development Center, which resulted in The Florida Center for Child & Family Development. That's okay, says Hopkins. "A lot of times we think it's money well spent when the merger doesn't happen. It's better to do it than go through a divorce after you've only been merged a couple of years."

And they don't have to marry. Jacobs, Dutton and Hopkins envision the day when non-profits form purchasing, administrative and accounting alliances, even information technology alliances, in order to save dollars and work more efficiently. "It hasn't happened yet, but we have to keep talking about it until it does," Jacobs says.

She agrees that so many non-profits in one community make for dizzy donors. That's why it's incumbent upon the organizations to "be clear about who they are and what their missions are."

There's a reason they all exist. "In a community that has the intellectual capital we have, when someone has a good idea, they can find others of like mind," Jacobs says. But sharing a goal-and a commitment to a new organization-isn't enough. "We always have to ask, 'Could we be smarter? Could we be doing it better?'" And, as in any business, she adds, "the market is going to decide."

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