Louisville’s Center for Nonprofit Excellence: Celebrating the nonprofit community


CNPE illustration
Illustration for the CNPE by [email protected] Creative.

The Center for Nonprofit Excellence is an unassuming organization, with a modern but modest suite in downtown Louisville. It employees only five full-time staff members, an intern, and runs on a trim budget of approximately $750,000. What it does for the city and its robust nonprofit community, however, is worth much more than those figures suggest.

The CNPE serves as a clearinghouse for strategy, professional development and business consulting for 400 group and individual nonprofits. That includes city gems such as Actors of Louisville, the Kentucky Center for the Arts, and Kosair Charities to lesser-known nonprofits such as La Casita Center. In addition to its member organizations, it serves nearly 1,000 more, training board members, employees and nonprofit leaders how to succeed with better business strategies and other best practices.

Kevin Connelly
Kevin Connelly

“That’s a big part of what we do is bringing people together around shared learning and collaboration,” explains executive director Kevin Connelly, who has lead CNPE since its launch in 1999. “We help organizations let their guard down to share procedures and knowledge, so the sector as a whole becomes more efficient.”

The City of Louisville, Metro United Way and the Donors Forum of Kentuckiana were the founding members. As the name suggests, the goal was to create a center of excellence that would collect best practices. The CNPE did its due diligence, Connelly said, studying successful organizations and the city’s thriving nonprofit ecosystem.

The CNPE soon learned Louisville had an unusually supportive culture for nonprofits. That traces back to the city’s early founding as a shipping and manufacturing center in the early 1800s. Non-profits took root almost simultaneously with industry, he explained.

“What we found out is Louisville had a head start since the 1800s. We had the 10th YMCA here, the first United Way south of the Mason Dixon Line, and Volunteers of America formed in D.C. and here in the same year,” Connelly said. “Compassion is part of our DNA.”

That pays off for the city in terms of revenue. A 2012 CNPE report notes that Louisville found the city’s nonprofits brought in $7.8 billion in revenue, placing it sixth highest in unadjusted total revenue among 15 peer cities, including Cincinnati, Kansas City, Birmingham-Hoover, and Jacksonville, Florida. Figures from 2010 show that, nationwide, nine percent of the country’s labor force wages are paid by nonprofits. That same year, nonprofit wages accounted for 13.2 percent of the city’s $59 billion GDP.

“Louisville consistently ranks higher in revenue totals than its population and nonprofit size would suggest in every category of nonprofits,” the report concluded.

What’s even more unusual and impressive, though, is the gap between contributions to nonprofits and their economic impact. While the total revenue per nonprofit ranks third among its 15 peer cities, and fourth if you exclude hospital revenue, it ranks 11th in donations and contributions.

“Most of the money comes from service fees,” Connelly said.

small-promo-150x100The CNPE has identified three key success factors for non-profits: The board, a plan, and a way to measure that plan, along with the results it brings about for and with the community. To that end, it works with nonprofits on all three aspects to ensure new nonprofits begin with a solid foundation and to help existing organizations grow. That assistance may be in the form of consulting on financial management, creating a funding plan, training board members on the nuances of non-profits, or one of the 60-70 staff and leader development seminars the group holds every year. It has also recruited 50 for-profit corporations who, Connelly says, are making an investment in the nonprofit community by joining CNPE.

Director of Learning Mervin Antonio, who oversees the seminars, said he takes a lot of pride and joy in helping generate new relationships and supporting nonprofits as they expand their reach.

“What’s great about working here is the opportunity to affect the direction of the non-profit sector in Louisville,” Antonio said. “A lot of people come through our program and say there’s something they can use from the get-go.”

The CNPE helps nonprofits marry their passions with solid business strategy and financial efficiencies, and that’s one reason why it’s able to attract top-notch, veteran leaders from both business and nonprofit.

“CNPE is seen as a group that lives up to its promises to strengthen non-profits,” he said. “We celebrate the nonprofit community. You really have so many people dedicated to what they do, you’re inspired every day.”