The Community Fund of Darien recently surveyed local nonprofits to better understand the challenges and opportunities they will face in 2014. The message from the 37 Stamford, Norwalk and Darien agencies was that demand for services is increasing while funding remains stagnant.

With the frigid temperatures in recent weeks, we feel a new sense of urgency when we learn that our homeless shelters in Stamford and Norwalk are at overflow capacity and Darien requests for heating and utility bill assistance are skyrocketing. The Connecticut 2-1-1 helpline reported a rising number of unmet needs in 2013, with the most requests for help with electric or gas bills. When unmet needs are rising, The Community Fund is dedicated to funding solutions.

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When asked to identify the most pressing human service need in lower Fairfield County, the agencies identified basic needs such as housing, food and health care as well as services targeting at-risk youth. Mental health services were the second most critical need identified. In fact, both a homeless shelter and a youth crisis agency reported a significant increase in mental health challenges. Nonprofit directors reported that more than half of their clients will likely face more obstacles to self-sufficiency this year than they did last year.

Many of the nonprofits anticipate increasing challenges in 2014, with the top two being insufficient funds to meet rising costs of services and inability to fully staff programs due to budget constraints. For 2014, 45 percent of the agencies forecast break-even operating expenses, while 35 percent predict an operating deficit. When asked whether improvements in the economy affect their agencies, 35 percent see no improvement, while another 35 percent anticipate that the economic recovery will lead to an increase in private donations. One agency declared that low-income families in lower Fairfield County are being left out of the economic recovery and the income disparity in our area is becoming more extreme.

The opportunities on the horizon for 2014 include program outreach, expansion of services to meet rising demand and increasing opportunity for collaboration with other nonprofits. Collaboration is a potent tool to increase efficiencies during challenging economic times. When nonprofits work collectively to share resources, they not only reduce their costs, but they can better focus on their niche of expertise. Eliminating redundancies and improving efficient delivery of services is critical during tough financial times. As donation dollars are limited and demand for critical services has increased, nonprofits are being forced to respond with organizational changes.

For our local nonprofits, measuring impact presents both an opportunity and a challenge. Many of the agencies recognize the importance of measuring the greater social impact of the services they provide. While tracking measurable outcomes in the nonprofit sector can be costly and time-consuming, its effect can be powerful. Agencies can use impact data to raise public awareness in a meaningful, real-life way, to influence cost-conscious public policy decisions and to improve funding streams. Forty-one percent of the agencies currently gather data regarding the longer-term impact of their services. Many agencies report that they do not have the staff expertise or technology to improve their capacity to measure impact.

At The Community Fund, we recognize that we cannot directly solve pressing needs like homelessness, gaps in mental health services and challenges related to at-risk youth. However, our knowledge, dedication and thoughtful approach to funding local needs can help improve the lives of many of our neighbors. Our commitment to our community runs deep. We believe that by joining together with the generous, compassionate and intelligent citizenry of Lower Fairfield County, we can help make our community the best it can be.

For more information, please visit www.communityfunddarien.org or call 655-8775.

Carrie Bernier is the executive director of The Community Fund of Darien.