Business

Does Boston have too many nonprofits?

Aneudy Rodriguez reviewed financial aid offers with Cara Press, a counselor at Bottom Line in Jamaica Plain.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Aneudy Rodriguez reviewed financial aid offers with Cara Press, a counselor at Bottom Line in Jamaica Plain.

True to its name, OneGoal, a nonprofit that will soon begin working in the Boston Public Schools, has a singular mission: helping disadvantaged students graduate from college.

Few dispute the value of that effort. Problem is, it’s the same goal of more than 40 other nonprofits that already partner with the city’s schools.

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That has led at least one prominent Boston charity, the Lynch Family Foundation, to decline to fund OneGoal — even though it has the backing of several other prominent, wealthy Bostonians — because “we found the market to be pretty saturated,” said its executive director, Katie Everett.

“I’m just not sure it’s what we need for our Boston kids at the time,” Everett said, adding that “there’s frustration” among some local nonprofits that OneGoal is being added to the mix.

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The situation reflects a broader question often asked — usually in hushed tones — in the nonprofit sector: Are too many nonprofits doing essentially the same thing while competing for donors and struggling to survive? Or, given the deep well of intractable social problems, can there ever be too many?

In a piece last year headlined “There Are Way Too Many Nonprofits,” David Callahan, editor of the website Inside Philanthropy, wrote that the sector is “filled with waste and duplication” and “crowded with different nonprofits pursuing roughly the same mission.”

Marla Felcher, founder of Cambridge-based Philanthropy Connection, has a similar view.

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“One thing I see over and over again is duplication of effort — so many small organizations that are doing the same work or very similar work,” Felcher said. “People say, ‘Oh, my nonprofit is different than that one,’ but if you’re on the outside, you don’t see the difference.

“How can I say this so I don’t insult anybody?” she added. “I think some of our smaller organizations would be best served by working more closely with or becoming part of a larger, better-established organization.”

In the genteel world of philanthropy, a reluctance to hurt feelings or offend funders often hinders discussion of the issue.

“We do have a nice culture here; the downside is we have a nice culture here,” Everett said. “There are nonprofits that should probably not exist.”

According to the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, the state has roughly 33,000 nonprofits, although only about 20,000 have recurring annual revenues, an indicator of an active organization. The percentage of active nonprofits in Massachusetts is higher than in many other states with comparable populations, MNN says.

In the case of Chicago-based OneGoal, numerous nonprofit executives said their concern is it may clone the work of similar Boston nonprofits while siphoning away precious dollars. But they were unwilling to be quoted speaking critically about OneGoal because the group largely funding the organization’s expansion here was cofounded by an influential philanthropist — Joanna Jacobson, wife of the Boston hedge fund manager Jonathon Jacobson — whom, they explained, they don’t want to alienate.

“Lots of people feel this way,” one of the executives said. “I hope you understand why.”

A Harvard MBA and former president of Keds Corp., Joanna Jacobson is managing partner of Strategic Grant Partners, a Newbury Street “venture philanthropy” firm whose mission is to find and fund promising nonprofits. Its backers have included some of the city’s wealthiest business people, including Robert Atchinson of Adage Capital Management, Josh Bekenstein and Paul Edgerley of Bain Capital, and Seth Klarman of Baupost Group.

Strategic Grant Partners has pledged $1.6 million to OneGoal, and the chief operating officer of Jonathon Jacobson’s firm, Highfields Capital Management, is one of OneGoal’s two Massachusetts board members. OneGoal is also receiving $500,000 from the Barr Foundation and $125,000 from the State Street Foundation.

The Boston Foundation provided $30,000 for OneGoal’s launch, though its president, Paul Grogan, frequently argues there are too many nonprofits.

“You don’t want to stop innovation in the social sector,” Grogan said, “but even the most successful nonprofits have a big problem raising money . . . so we think there should be more mergers and collaborations.”

In an interview with the Globe, Joanna Jacobson said she was initially skeptical of OneGoal, but after learning more about the organization she concluded that it targets a population of students — low-income academic underperformers with limited college prospects —currently neglected by local nonprofits.

She also said numerous students, teachers, principals, and guidance counselors in the Boston area expressed enthusiasm for the program.

“We never bring something unless it’s wanted,” Jacobson said. “That would be pointless for everybody.”

Asked if nonprofits are comfortable giving Strategic Grant Partners honest input, she said: “I don’t think I have a comment on that. I mean, how would we know?” She added that “we really do strongly value candid conversations and feedback.”

As for whether, as some critics contend, it would be better to expand or combine existing nonprofits than import new ones, Jacobson said, “I think it is poor judgment for philanthropy to tell nonprofits the work they should engage in.”

Beginning this fall, OneGoal will be based in four high schools in Boston and two in Lawrence, working with between 25 and 30 students per school. The OneGoal curriculum of academics, life skills, and college admission assistance such as test prep is offered as an elective class taught by teachers at the schools.

Several dozen nonprofits aimed at increasing college graduation rates partner with the Boston Public Schools, including Bottom Line, College Advising Corps, Steppingstone Foundation, and uAspire. School officials acknowledge they don’t know the total number, because some schools form partnerships without notifying the central office. All four Boston schools partnering with OneGoal — Community Academy of Science and Health, Excel High School, Snowden International School, and Urban Science Academy — have existing college readiness partners.

Citing state data showing that only 15 percent of low-income students graduate from college, OneGoal’s executive director in Massachusetts, Patty Diaz-Andrade, said the organization hopes to expand to Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, New Bedford, and other underserved areas.

“We’re not going to go to a community where we feel the market is saturated and there is no problem,” added OneGoal’s communications director, Monique Zurita. “We believe there’s room in Boston, obviously. If not, we wouldn’t be there.”

OneGoal is not even the only new college readiness program in Boston. Noonan Scholars was launched this summer. And Houston-based SWAG to College aims to begin working with local schools this fall.

All the programs say they are distinct in some way, but skeptics say the work they do is often substantially the same.

Still, “thinking that, ‘Oh, here’s yet another college readiness program when we have so many already in Boston’ is a very shortsighted view,” said Jonathan Spack, CEO of Third Sector New England, a resource center for nonprofits. “Sure, there may be some overlaps and inefficiencies, but the problems nonprofits are trying to address are so immense, and the resources available to them are so little, that the more assets we have to address the problem, the better.”

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached pfeiffer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @SachaPfeiffer.
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