Human Services Groups Collaborate To Survive

Some social service agencies think of their clients as being or having a problem. According to Al Condeluci, CEO of Community Living and Support Services (CLASS) in Pittsburgh, Pa., “it is the community and their lack of understanding and acceptance that’s the real problem.”

CLASS takes what Condeluci calls a “macro approach” to social services by building social capital, re-framing the “problem” of disability, and collaborating with other organizations.

Chartered in 1951 as an affiliate of United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), CLASS merged with the Multiple Sclerosis Service Society and the Alliance for Community Respite Care in 2010. Last year, the organization became independent from UCP. Some 44 percent of CLASS’ board is comprised of people with a disability or who have disabled family members.

“If an organization sees its objective as changing the perspectives of the community, the organization has to be more engaged and involved in that community,” said Condeluci. “We have always been engaged, spinning off new projects and coalitions that disability groups aren’t normally involved in. The challenge is to get human services organizations to wake up and build a bigger tent,” said Condeluci.

In an era of reduced funding and increasing need, human services nonprofits around the country are responding to funder demands to create sustainable change and achieve greater impact.

“Ideas about greater entrepreneurship, consolidation, and collaboration in the sector occur about every five to 10 years,” said Will DeKrey, manager of networks & knowledge at Community Wealth Partners in Washington, D.C., a Share Our Strength organization that works with nonprofits and foundations to tackle social problems.

“Some politicians lump all human services together in a negative light as ‘entitlement’ programs, or by referring to the ‘safety net’ as a ‘hammock.’ Individuals’ outlooks are influenced by those kinds of characterizations, and individuals vote, so it’s time to reframe the discussion,” said Irv Katz, president and CEO of the National Human Services Assembly in Washington, D.C. Katz and NHSA are leading an effort to re-frame the discussion regarding social services on a national level.

According to Linda Nguyen, director of civic engagement at the Alliance for Children and Families in Milwaukee, Wisc., innovative approaches, unlike traditional medical models, engage the community, focus on the entire family, involve the person in their own care, and collaborate with other services offered in the community.

During its national conference last year, the Alliance released a set of 10 commitments of high-impact organizations to help its members and other nonprofit human service organizations achieve meaningful, lasting results.

Among the commitments is “innovating with enterprise” which, explained Nguyen, means “recognizing that uncertainty inspires creativity, and figuring out how to develop staff to embrace ambiguity and allow them to take critical risks.” An example, said Nguyen, is the Alliance’s Intergenerational Mentoring Project, funded by the MetLife Foundation, which involves five grantee organizations in the Alliance network working in their communities to encourage older adults and youth to connect as partners in civic engagement.

“Managing this effort requires releasing a lot of control,” said Nguyen. “Every community has its own activities already taking place, so grantee organizations have a great opportunity to work with the community rhythms to attempt to move things even farther for greater impact.”

At a recent debriefing session, the project’s grantees spoke about obstacles and setbacks, and expressed concern about not accomplishing what they set out to do, said Nguyen. “While the organizations didn’t accomplish what the outside would view as grandiose goals, they did create solid relationships in the community,” she said.

Although funders have expected greater coordination and collaboration among agencies for decades, it takes a lot of work to have a successful collaboration, said Bob Feikema, who moved from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Winston-Salem, N.C., in January 2013 to become president and CEO of Family Services, Inc.

“We’re a community that is very much poised and interested in moving in a different direction,” said Feikema, who has sought community and client input. He has worked with his board and staff on a new strategic vision and action plan slated to be released in April.

Engaging families and community residents is a critical aspect of Family Service’s new strategy. “Many people in Winston-Salem aren’t able to participate in community life,” said Feikema. “Part of our approach is to give all citizens a voice. Once you engage residents, you begin to alter the way decisions are made. Eventually, this will impact how we recruit board members and their role as advocates,” he added.

For most of its nearly 110-year history, said Feikema, Family Services has been a service provider. “The agency’s new strategy isn’t an either or situation,” said Feikema. “We will still be a provider of direct services. But we need to add to that. The issues are community-wide and societal in nature.”

Although organizational change is difficult, said Feikema, the agency has made several internal and external changes. Its three divisions are becoming less siloed, and staff members are forming cross-functional teams.

During the past several months Family Services has been developing a project with three local nonprofits to provide family therapy, relationship skills training, parenting education and support, financial education and coaching, and job training and employment services to the 500 families in the agency’s Head Start program. Participatory researchers from Wake Forest University will involve parents in the project’s decision-making, design and evaluation.

“We can re-deploy some staff for this project but collaboration requires additional funding for coordination and specialized staffing,” said Feikema.

Many funders want to see more collaboration as a way to eliminate duplication of services, said F. Whitney Jones, Ph.D., whose firm Whitney Jones, Inc., in Winston-Salem, has managed capital campaigns for more than 30 years.

In response to funder demands, many capital campaigns are partnerships, said Jones, who is managing a campaign to raise funds for a startup project aimed at three different populations with the common thread of their need for supported employment, housing and education to transition to adulthood and become independent. Unlike capital campaigns of the past that sought funds to support a particular organization, the campaign will support the project’s multiple partners. Partners include a nonprofit housing development organization, several human services pro­viders, the community college, state un­iversity, and others.

Similar collaborations among Alliance members are happening around the country, said Nguyen, highlighting The John H. Boner Community Center in Indianapolis, Ind., which focuses on neighborhood-driven efforts and collaboration with public and private partners. “They’ve taken the time to work on culture change,” said Nguyen. “You see the way program participants are respected and treated as equals. Some are now serving as staff.”

Other examples of collaboration include:

  • Hillside Family of Agencies in Rochester, N.Y., which works with community centers to secure funding to improve outcomes in the juvenile justice system;
  • Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis, Minn., a collaboration of organizations and schools and a partnership with families to prepare children to graduate from high school ready for college as a means to end multigenerational poverty; and,
  • Youth Policy Institute in Los Angeles, Calif., a public-private partnership working to transform neighborhood schools into full-service community schools with more than 60 partners that will share information through a new data system.

Collaborations are second nature to The Family Partnership, a nearly 150-year-old, multi-service, community-based organization in Minneapolis, Minn. Nine years ago, the Family Partnership — then known as Family & Children’s Service — was one of four nonprofits that envisioned and created MACC CommonWealth, a shared management service organization (MSO) that now has more than 30 member organizations.

“The CommonWealth is a partnership, not a vendor relationship. We are driving down our overhead costs ourselves,” said Molly Greenman, president & CEO of The Family Partnership. The MSO has grown and responded to member organizations’ needs and interests over the years, which has led to the development of new products and services, she added.

The Family Partnership merged with Reuben Lindh Family Services two years ago as a strategy to grow, achieve greater impact, create more sustainability and maintain a high quality infrastructure.

Reductions in funding require more innovation, acknowledged Greenman, but “innovation is not about chasing after dollars, it’s about taking existing services and doing them in different ways, in different places,” said Greenman.

The Family Partnership uses both high touch and high tech. The organization leverages its own strengths and the strengths based in the community, particularly among its Latino, Hmong and Somali populations, explained Greenman.

The organization’s efforts also include using technology. While The Family Partnership “doesn’t have resources to innovate like Google,” said Greenman, it is using video technology to expand its capacity to provide outpatient mental health services to different populations. Privacy issues are a concern, she acknowledged. “We need to look at how we can use video and other technologies that maintain privacy while providing quality social services,” said Greenman.  NPT