Princeton Merchants Association

Our mission is to create a vibrant and sustainable local economy in Princeton by attracting, nurturing, and maintaining a mix of businesses that serve the economic, social and material needs of our community and make Princeton a great place to live and work.

Understanding How Nonprofits Work

By Elizabeth M. Casparian, PhD

Most people who work in the non-profit business sector are aware that the for-profit community doesn’t completely understand the way nonprofits work, OR how best to interact with them. The general lack of understanding about how community benefit organizations work and interact with all parts of a community is one of the main reasons why the Princeton Merchants Association brought me on board as its nonprofit liaison several years ago - to find ways of engaging business owners to work more collaboratively and creatively with our many local nonprofits. Jeff Nathanson of the Arts Council of Princeton, now serves this liaison role on the PMA board.

The first misconception is that nonprofit agencies, whether a public television station or a service organization, like HiTOPS Adolescent Health and Education Center, where I serve as Executive Director, are seen as groups that generally only interact with businesses when asking for donations in the form of money or prizes for fundraising events.  

While it’s true that nonprofit organizations do rely on the donations of residents and merchants to help achieve their missions, it’s critical to remember that helping to better the community is about much more than just businesses donating time, goods, money, and services to nonprofits. It’s about working together for a common good by bringing our own sets of strengths to the community. 

The Princeton Merchants Association’s April 21 meeting is going to look at this very topic ‒‒ how businesses of all sizes can work with nonprofit agencies of all types, and how nonprofit organizations can change the perception that they always have their hands out. We will be joined by Jeffrey Vega, the new President and CEO of the Princeton Area Community Foundation, who will discuss the value nonprofits offer to communities and how we can build and grow partnerships between businesses and nonprofits in order to benefit all of us.

One way to change hearts and minds is to ensure that everyone understands, nonprofit engagement is not all about donations. When an organization plans a fundraising event, they can work with for-profit entities to help drive customers to their businesses, create new opportunities for collaboration, and ensure that the impact of the event benefits the community. Nonprofits are not just social services groups or organizations raising money for a cause. We are also about partnering in ways that help make Princeton unique and special – think about Communiversity and the Princeton Half Marathon as examples of fundraising events with community-wide benefit.

In Princeton we have a unique model for what a great community can be ‒‒ anchored by a world-class university, peopled by world-class residents, and buoyed by a world-class business and cultural base that embraces its arts and social responsibilities in equal measure.

Another misconception about nonprofits, especially in Princeton, is that Princeton is an affluent town without need for nonprofit organizations and social services.

The reality is, there are many members of our community who need social services like HiTOPS, 101 the Fund, and others.  Whether they are employees of our businesses, residents of the community or consumers in our shops, people need the services and programs that are offered by our many non-profit entities – and many of those folks cannot otherwise afford to pay for those services.  The lives of everyone in Princeton are enriched by the many resources in our community which help create those intangible connections that make us feel part of something big.

A third misconception about nonprofits is that only big businesses can make an impact on nonprofit organizations. Of course, nonprofit agencies benefit greatly when a large corporation generously donates large checks. But small businesses, like those open every day in downtown Princeton, can make a huge difference in the community through nonprofit collaboration.

In fact, smaller businesses have a major advantage over large corporations. Large corporations need to create a position for a community relations manager whose job is to outreach and to get to know the community. But small businesses, from McCaffrey’s to Jazams, already know the community because they interact with it every day, coming in and out of their shops, restaurants and offices. This knowledge helps small business owners know best how to engage with local customers and how to create benefits for their favorite charities, but can also have additional impact when business owners serve on nonprofit boards and volunteer at community events.

In the purely economical sense, this gives small businesses the advantage of building their own brands right alongside that of local nonprofits. And this might be as simple as printing the logo of a nonprofit onto a special t-shirt at Small World Coffee or as clever as setting a scene in Hulit’s  Shoes as part of a community play created and performed by the Arts Council of Princeton. 

The point is, there are many ways for our for-profit and nonprofit organizations to work together to enhance the community. Remember ‒‒ it’s not only about trading money, it’s about partnering together to keep our community a great place to live, work and play.

Elizabeth Casparian is the Executive Director of HiTOPS and a former board member of the Princeton Merchants Association.


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