Chapter 10: Cutbacks, Recession, and General Unease Bring New Direction (1980s)

Throughout the 1980s, Family Service Association of America (FSAA) and its member agencies tightened their belts to do more with less. Recession, unemployment, and inflation helped swell the ranks of the already poor with the “new poor.” More than two-thirds of adults living in poverty were women.

As the government inserted itself into family life through social welfare funding, family problems increasingly became public problems. The White House Conference on Families focused new attention on family issues and generated contentious debate. A conservative backlash to the “big government” social spending harkened back to the prior century: Welfare was criticized as creating a culture of dependency. People living in poverty often were stigmatized as lazy people with poor morals who had to be taught self-sufficiency.

President Ronald Reagan’s administration approved cutbacks in federally-funded social programs such as public and mental health, school lunch programs and food stamps, child care, alcohol and drug treatment, and other social services. Many federal functions were transferred back to the states.

The cutbacks hurt doubly. Besides shrinking the basic benefits to which vulnerable families were entitled, the cutbacks also impacted the availability of services to people trying to cope with their worsening living conditions. Child and family service agencies struggled to meet increased demand even as their own revenues shrank. Agencies found themselves in the odd position of simultaneously courting government contracts while also speaking out against government policies that they felt hurt families.

The FSAA government affairs program was especially active during this time. An attempt to weaken the federal program of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) failed in part because of the leadership of the association and others in defending the program so vital to millions of vulnerable children and their families.

A New Leader for a New Direction

W. Keith Daugherty, FSAA general director, resigned in 1981. A warm and personable executive, he was intimately familiar with all the issues facing family services. “He could meet someone at a conference and a year later ask that person how her Aunt Tilly was doing. He was that kind of guy,” recalls Bob Rice, who served as acting CEO of FSAA while a national search was conducted.

Some, but not all, members of the FSAA board recognized that the movement and the national organization were in trouble. The environment for families and the organizations serving them had undergone a marked change. FSAA established a task force on organizational renewal. It redefined its mission and structure, and it chose a CEO with a fire to take the association in a new direction.

Geneva Johnson was hired as president and CEO in 1983. With the hiring of Johnson, the FSAA board committed to a significant shift in direction. Johnson was recruited from United Way of America, where she was senior vice president of strategic planning. She had advanced degrees in both social work and business management, and had held executive leadership positions at the local and national level. Under her leadership, Johnson recommended and established a task force on organizational renewal chaired by Joseph M. Reibman, an attorney and FSAA board member. Johnson brought a compelling new approach to nonprofit organizations.

“I wasn’t looking for a job, but I was interested in an organization that had such a phenomenal history. And I was excited about turning an organization around,” says Johnson.

“At the time, most FSAA member organizations still were relying on the traditional ways of operating, anticipating that United Way would always be a major source of funding, that there wouldn’t be a lot of competition in the community, and that things would go along pretty much the way they did the last 35 or 40 years,” says Reed Henderson, who was executive director of Family Service of Morris County in Morristown, N.J., at the time. “Geneva talked to us about the bottom line, the need to be more flexible and nimble or others would come in and take our places. She talked about the need for new funding streams, the need to think in new and different ways about what it means to be a leader in the nonprofit sector in a changing world.”

FSAA recognized that a fundamental change had to occur and it had to assume responsibly for nudging its members into the future. There were clear risks in that approach. The members paid the dues; if they were getting messages they weren’t ready to hear, that would be a problem.

“We did struggle with that throughout Geneva’s tenure,” acknowledges Henderson. “I think that is a normal part of the evolution. She was the right leader for that time. She could weather the tension and keep her eye on the direction she wanted to take the organization.”

Johnson and the board wasted no time in launching a renewed organization prepared to seize the future. Joseph Reibman was asked to lead the bylaws committee. Reibman readily agreed. The association had just hired its first female president; Reibman assumed the committee would simply make small corrections in the bylaws to create gender-neutral language. He was in for a surprise.

“At the first meeting in 1982, I was told the committee had been retasked,” Reibman recalls. “Now we were called the Task Force on Organizational Renewal. Our responsibility was to reorganize the entire organization.” The committee spent a great deal of time discussing its future: Did it want to be a trade association that provided membership services? Or, did it want to be a national leader of a national movement?

“If we were going to be the national headquarters of a movement, where we could influence policy, where we could be on the cutting edge of new trends, where we could maximize the collective wisdom of all our members, where we could attract corporate contracts and the support of major foundations, then we needed a new structure for a new day. We had to elevate our organization to a very strong, focused, national leadership group,” Reibman explains. “Geneva Johnson was a ball of fire. She had a great vision of where this organization could go. As a director and the chair of the task force on organizational renewal, I wanted to provide the tools to make that happen.”

At the time, the national FSAA board was comprised of one-third or more social service agency executives. The other board members were nominated by the eight FSAA regions. The regional council structure was cumbersome and expensive. It provided great camaraderie among members, but the focus tended to be on management and practice, and not on issues reflective of the social services movement as a whole.

The organizational renewal process realigned the structure to six regions. The FSAA board composition and nominating process also were changed. The goal was to create a board of lay representatives with no vested interest who would bring a business focus and a national perspective. Member agencies were asked to recommend corporate leaders in their community to the national FSAA board.

A Council of Agency Executives was established to advise the FSAA leader. The Council included the 10 largest member agencies and several dozen smaller agencies to provide broad representation. A new category of affiliate membership also was created to expand the association’s constituency.

The name was changed from Family Service Association of America to Family Service America (FSA). The organization’s tagline, listed on the letterhead among other places, was “Families Strengthen America.” Service delivery to members also was reorganized. A resource development division was created, as was the Evaluation and Strategic Planning Committee and the Standards Committee.

Planning began for FSA’s first capital campaign, a $5 million goal that would put the organization on sound financial footing, expand program outreach, and provide a firm foundation for the future.

Once the organizational renewal plan was in place, Johnson and board member Reibman hit the road. Recognizing that the plan represented a major shift in power, they visited every former FSAA region to gain consensus. “I remember going to a regional meeting in Atlanta. There were about 300 people in a big ballroom. It was supposed to be a 20-minute presentation about the proposed bylaws and it ended up being two hours. Everyone questioned it,” says Reibman. “Finally some woman in the back raises her hand and says, ‘How do we know these votes are going to be counted accurately?’ I said, ‘Ma’am, if you give me your name, I’ll put you on that committee.’ ” All but one member agency voted in favor of the renewal plan. It was a powerful ratification of future direction: The national organization would represent not only its members, but lead the movement as a whole.

“A lot of this happened because of Bob Rice,” says Johnson. “We had to have the consent of the people that mattered most—the member agencies. Bob was right there through all of this and in accord with it ... The member agencies had tremendous respect for him. That earned their support of the organizational renewal. In addition, Joseph Reibman and Ed Ruzinsky were two powerful board members who helped me tremendously.”

New Headquarters Established in Milwaukee

The decision to move FSA corporate offices to Milwaukee was one of the centerpieces of the organizational renewal process. Leaving the office on East 23rd Street in New York City would not only save money, it would put organization headquarters closer to the majority of its members and enabled FSA to hire new staff from all over the country.

Opened in 1986, the new building in Milwaukee was a visible symbol of the 75-year-old organization’s rejuvenation and new direction.

Several cities were under serious consideration for the move. FSA board member and major donor Doris Chortek, and David Hoffman, executive director of Family Service of Milwaukee (today’s Aurora Family Services) were instrumental in bringing the national organization to Milwaukee. Local and state corporate leaders and governmental officials were very much involved in bringing the organization to Wisconsin. Business leaders contributed more than $900,000 toward the relocation. Trammel Crow, a nationally-known developer, built the new headquarters at cost. FSA moved into the new building in June 1986, only responsibile for paying the remainder of the building construction loan. Johnson says that at her retirement in 1994, they burned the mortgage on the building.

The Milwaukee business community, Milwaukee County, and Wisconsin state leaders were enthusiastic about locating FSA in Milwaukee. “Milwaukee articulated that this is a community that cares about people, that cares about families, and it would be proud to have the national organization for families located here,” says Geneva Johnson.

Says Ed Ruzinsky, who served on the FSA Board of Directors from 1985–1995, “We also were befriended by a great gentleman, Charlie McNeer, who at that time was chair of WE Energies. He opened doors for us.”

Strengthening Member Capacity

FSA broke new ground in other areas as well. As the former FSAA general director, Clark Blackburn had developed an executive training conference with the Wharton School of Business. During the several years it existed, it was a key management training device for agency CEOs. Now, in this new era of government funding, agencies needed to be increasingly sophisticated to compete.

FSA established the International Training Center with help of a grant from the Wisconsin Electric System Foundation. Its goal was to create an ongoing learning environment to keep membership at the cutting edge of the field. FSA partnered with the Harvard Business School to conduct a needs assessment of agency executives. A curriculum was developed in areas such as organizational leadership and management, human resources, financial management, strategic planning, and fund development. The first full program of classes was offered in 1988.

The FSA Washington Office on Government Affairs provided tools to keep members abreast of policy initiatives and funding streams. Working with the Government Relations and Public Policy Committee of the board, the Washington D.C.-based government affairs staff directed its efforts in the 1980s to opposing cuts to AFDC and other programs that protected vulnerable children and families. FSA created a crucial coalition of several dozen other organizations to oppose AFDC cutbacks and turning administration over to the states. The government affairs staff also worked on legislation affecting child support, single-parent families, pregnant adolescents, and employment leave for new parents. Efforts to improve family violence legislation led to passage of Public Law No. 98457, which for the first time provided funding to service providers and shelters to help people dealing with violence. The growing issue of small business competition and protecting tax-exempt status of nonprofit organizations was a major concern. FSA worked to develop a state-by-state network to strengthen and protect nonprofit agency mission and interests in a changing climate.

“The State of Families 1984–1985,” an exhaustive research study commissioned and published by FSA, received extensive national recognition. It was released to the media at the National Press Club. The review of external factors impacting family life outlined current problems, examined trends and provided a blueprint for short term and long range action. This report and the ones that followed were invaluable to FSA and member agencies in generating awareness and making the case for financial support.

Volatile and Challenging Environment Reason for Long-Range Strategic Plan

As poverty, crime, homelessness, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, and other social problems continued to increase in the 1980s, new problems emerged. The changes to family make-up and lifestyles that began in the past several decades intensified. The number of married-couple households dropped; births to unmarried mothers increased. The child and family service field was particularly impacted by four issues: children living in poverty, aging, adolescent pregnancy, and the AIDS epidemic. Child and family service agencies were dealing with unprecedented service challenges at the same time their funding was seriously jeopardized.

FSA’s newly implemented business model recognized the maxim, “The only constant is change.” Amid the urgency of need, the volatile and rapidly-changing environment, and ever more challenging funding conditions, FSA launched an extensive long-range strategic plan. It examined organizational direction, forged a new mission statement that emphasized its role as a national movement, and created strategic goals and operational strategies to guide FSA to the 21st century.

As a result, member services were diversified and expanded to enable agencies to more effectively achieve mission. New avenues of services were identified, and the research and development department was established. FSA committed to strengthening its national leadership role and influencing policy.

The association board began to discuss the need for an endowment when the organization still was located in New York. Every board member was asked to either make or attain a significant donation.

“I wasn’t in the same league,” says Joseph Reibman, who served on the board of Family and Counseling Service of Northampton County, Pa. “All these board members could write big checks and their companies would match them. I thought about what else I could do.” What Reibman did was solicit a real estate donation that represented the largest individual gift in FSA history. The funds were used to create an endowment for the organization’s future. In the years ahead, Reibman continued to invest in real estate and donate proceeds to FSA. One gift was used to pay off the mortgage for the new FSA headquarters; a 2006 gift was instrumental in creating the Intellectual Capital Seed Fund.

New Source of Revenue for Members

Child and family service agencies historically have been involved with industrial life. By the turn of the 20th century, they were working to improve child labor laws and workplace conditions. In the mid-1980s, FSA and its member agencies found new ways to reach out to families and industry—and a major source of new revenue for FSA and member agencies. The development of a for-profit employee assistance program (EAP) business was a major milestone for the organization.

Geneva Johnson had been with United Way of Rochester before moving to United Way of America. She knew executives at Xerox Corporation, headquartered in Rochester, N.Y., on a local counseling service for Xerox employees. She suggested FSA pursue the idea of a nationwide EAP contract using the FSA national membership network. It was a natural extension of FSA’s concern for working families. Some member agencies already were providing employee assistance services on a local basis. Parents spent most of their waking hours in the workplace; what better channel to offer access to human services?

“Our intent was to establish a local program that would benefit both FSA and its members. It turned out to be really beneficial to members, although they struggled to come to terms with it based on their mission,” says Geneva Johnson. “Some at first felt they could not go against mission and treat people who could afford their services. We asked them to consider broadening their missions to encompass serving people struggling with mental health issues. When a few of the members agreed, many more followed suit.”

FSA created the National Service to Industry Division in 1979 and entered into a nationwide contract with Xerox. It was the first national EAP program founded by a nonprofit organization and remains a pioneer in behavioral health. Ed McLaughlin, who wore many hats at FSA, led the EAP program to rapid growth.

Later renamed Family Enterprises Inc., and today named FEI Behavioral Health (FEI), it quickly became a leader in the field. Within several years, it added IBM, North American Philips Corporation, and other major corporations to its client roster. Services included counseling, information and referral, health education programs, and evaluation and referral for drug and alcohol problems.

A 1984 contract with General Motors (GM), the nation’s second largest corporation at the time, represented a new venture. FEI signed a managed care contract for GM’s substance abuse program. This contract represented national recognition of FSA’s ability to provide a high quality of care and to contain costs through case management.

In 1985, Joe DesPlaines joined FEI as its first president. He implemented a fully integrated EAP/work-life service. By 1988, FEI had 22 EAP and managed care contracts. Many FSA member agencies provided direct service to clients, handled nearly 36,000 client phone calls, and referred more than 15,000 people for counseling.

“FEI grew like ‘topsy’ under the leadership of Joe DesPlaines. He was an expert marketing salesman for the program,” says Geneva Johnson.

In 1989, FEI added two major new areas of service in response to changing needs. The Dependent Care Program provided information and referral services to employees with elder care and child care needs in any community in North America.

FEI also created the first comprehensive crisis management program, providing consultation, counseling, and critical incidence stress debriefing for mass casualty incidents, workplace catastrophes, and community disasters. “The crisis management program was a game changer,” says DesPlaines. “It changed the focus of FEI, gave it a lot of credibility, and opened doors that led to a lot of success.” The first crisis management contract was with Comair; FEI responded to the first airline disaster in 1995. By 2003, FEI was contracted by 52 airlines for crisis management services.

From the moment the first plane hit the first World Trade Center tower in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the FEI staff went into action. Some literally lived at the office for most of the next three months. FEI operated a national call center for survivors and victims’ families, working with the U.S. Department of Justice, FBI, and National Transportation Safety Board. Also, among FEI’s EAP clients were dozens of airlines and corporations whose employees were impacted by the terrorist attack.

“This was a national tragedy, probably the Pearl Harbor of this generation. The opportunity to be able to do something in return was extremely gratifying,” reflects DesPlaines. “My most significant memory is thinking, ‘Here is this little organization in Milwaukee doing all this.’ The FEI staff and the member agencies really stepped up.” For years, FEI had provided training in crisis management and critical incidence debriefing to qualified staff at member agencies. Now these trained crisis counselors gave of their time and their hearts, traveling to Milwaukee to volunteer at the national call center, responding at Ground Zero in New York City and at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and offering help to their peer member agencies who were overwhelmed by the need for services.

FEI has since adapted its crisis response model to serve the needs of customers impacted by both major and minor disruptions that have lingering and unintended consequences in the workforce, including interference of service to customers, service delivery, and productivity. Today, in addition to airlines, they work with financial service providers, government agencies, retailers, and many hotel and hospitality providers.

FEI was operated as a division of FSA until the organizational restructuring in 1992. Now it is a separate corporation of Families International, Inc., the parent company of the present-day Alliance for Children and Families.


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