WEST JORDAN — Across Utah, nonprofits suffered mightily during the past two years, with many organizations struggling to cope during the severe economic downturn. According to Community Foundation of Utah, 40 percent of the state's nonprofits reported declining donations in 2010, and a third are in danger of closing their doors altogether.

To mitigate the problem, the Community Foundation of Utah developed the Social Innovation Challenge — a first-of-its-kind competition giving nonprofits access to 40 of Utah's brightest and most talented entrepreneurs and 12 graduate students from the University of Utah and Brigham Young University

The program offers nonprofits the opportunity to learn and develop innovative strategies and business plans to increase their revenue and value to the community. The challenge also gives nonprofit and business leaders a chance to take calculated risks, gain new skills and develop new networks.

According to organization treasurer Jeramy Lund, the Community Foundation of Utah serves as a facilitator to link donors and nonprofits together for the common good of the community. He said this program is groundbreaking and could become a model for others nationwide to follow.

"We hope to really start to tackle a lot of the nonprofit problems from a business perspective, really using people's minds instead of just throwing money at it," he said. "Donations are down … and will continue to be down. Nonprofits need to change the way they think about how they raise money and how they get people involved in their organizations."

Lund said the mentoring program is a way to get that process started and hopefully mitigate the loss of more Utah nonprofits.

During a public forum Tuesday, a panel of five business experts gave advice and critiqued presentations by six nonprofits. Salt Lake CAP Head Start was among the finalist organizations.

Executive director Erin Trenbeath-Murray said creating a recognizable brand and developing a strong marketing strategy were the tactics her organization learned and hoped would help enhance their fundraising efforts to reach potential donors.

"The mentors really outlined a very strategic business approach of how to reach our target audiences," she told the Deseret News. She said learning the new ideas has really changed the way they think about reaching out to the community.

"We didn't think a nonprofit could brand. We didn't think we could market," she said. "It seemed kind of self-serving … and so foreign and business-oriented."

Trenbeath-Murray said realizing that nonprofits behave very similarly to start-up businesses has really opened a world of possibilities for future resource development.

Program mentor Tim Brown, chief operations officer for BotProof.com — an Internet security firm, said helping nonprofits has been a rewarding experience.

"Challenges in the nonprofit world and challenges in the business world are very much the same," Brown said. "The tactics by which we target our missions are very much the same — targeted marketing plans, really, (and) focusing on who is your target audience and what messages resonate with them (and thereby) cause them to act."

e-mail: jlee@desnews.com