To do good, we must do well. In an era of ever-shrinking funding and ever-greater demand, the work of the Alliance for Children and Families has never been more vital.
“It’s a very challenging time right now. Over and over again, I hear nonprofit executives saying, ‘I’ve been in the field for 30 years and what I’m facing today is the greatest challenge I’ve ever seen,’ ” says B. Scott Finnell, chair of the Alliance Board of Directors in 2009 and 2010 and president and CEO of Pressley Ridge in Pittsburgh. The human services sector is a field in constant change, yet most leadership and staff are very resistant to change, Finnell observes. He emphasizes that organizations that can’t stay on the cutting edge of programs and service delivery are vulnerable to simply going away or, even worse, being irrelevant.
That’s why Finnell believes so strongly in the Alliance. “For the past 100 years, the Alliance has not only helped shape emerging trends, it prepares its members be ready for those trends. Pressley Ridge is where we are today in large part because of the role the Alliance plays in providing intellectual capital,” Finnell says. “As Peter Goldberg leads the Alliance in thinking about what the future will be for our organizations and our sector, he’s the burr under the saddle—irritating enough that you can’t ignore him. It’s one of those irritations that if you don’t pay attention and do something about it now, you might wake up a few years down the road and realize you’ve been left behind and left out.”
Goldberg, president and CEO of the Alliance, believes that the organization’s mission to fuse intellectual capital with superior member services is the ideal mission going forward. “Building and redistributing knowledge and strengthening capacity for innovation are the most essential things we can do for our members,” he says. Research, outcomes data, and trends reports; management and leadership tools; workforce development; resource development; and a supportive network of colleagues facilitate continuous quality improvement and growth are all hallmarks of the Alliance.
“The Alliance is a thought leader in the nation with regard to family and children’s services. As such, the Alliance is helping members to continually consider how we can best serve families and children given the environment that we’re operating in now, as well as the environment we expect to be operating in during the years to come,” says Dennis Richardson, president and CEO of Hillside Family of Agencies in Rochester, N.Y.
Other top issues identified by Goldberg and Finnell:
The Alliance has a rich ethos of advocacy dating back to its founding. Over the past 100 years, the Alliance, its predecessors, and its member agencies have successfully advocated for and influenced social policies that strengthen children, families, and communities. And today, more concerted public policy is imperative. Public policy can no longer be just an afterthought or a board subcommittee, it must be a core function of each organization.
“Our role is to serve our clients. To do that, all human service organizations, faith-based or not, have an equally pressing responsibility to promote justice and the common good. That is as much a part of our job as any of the services we provide,” says Gene Svebakken, president and CEO of Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois in River Forest. The agency makes social justice a priority of every CEO, every board member and every staff member. “It’s not even something we have a choice about. It’s integral to the job,” Svebakken explains. “If we abdicate that responsibility, we erode the strength of our organization.”
But it’s a delicate balance. The sector’s relationship to government has been profoundly altered as a result of privatization. For the past three or more decades, government sources have represented the major proportion of most member agencies’ revenue. In the current budget crisis, it is essential to educate key decision-makers about the issues and demonstrate successful outcomes—not simply to access funding streams, but to enable the sector to better serve its clients. And yet, at the same time agencies serve as contractors for the government and compete for funding, they also have to act as its watchdog and its conscience, advocating and protecting the voice and rights of its citizens.
“We have to continue to advocate to fund the safety net for the vulnerable people in our communities,” says Sister Linda Yankoski, president and CEO of Holy Family Institute in Pittsburgh. “We also have to continue to be the voice for those who have no access to political power.”
The Alliance’s civic engagement focus is grounded in the community organizing principles of its earliest years. In bringing together public policy at the national level and civic engagement at the grassroots level, the Alliance has broadened its strategy to actively engage stakeholders from local neighborhoods to the state capitals and to Capitol Hill.
Who can say with certainty what revolutions in funding and service delivery the future might bring? Armed with research and knowledge, with strategic relationships, with the credibility of a strong, united voice, the Alliance is well positioned to influence the debate.
Strategic Management to Achieve Mission
With mission at the forefront, member organizations must operate with a strategic business management perspective to create an environment of exceptional service, fiscal stewardship, and innovation. “We’re not running nonprofit agencies, we are running not-for-profit businesses,” emphasizes Richard Cohen, president and CEO of Public Health Management Corporation in Philadelphia. “Our outcome isn’t profit; it is the demonstrated difference we make in improving people’s lives. But we have to operate in a business-like way to ensure that our assets allow us to do that.”
Since the inception of Great Society programs in the 1960s, the majority of child and family service organizations have become heavily reliant on government funding streams. The result is that many have become conduits for government policy, observes Lester Salamon, director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at The Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. (Holding the Center: America’s Nonprofit Sector at a Crossroads, Lester M. Salamon, Nathan Cummings Foundation, New York, 1997) The challenge for individual agencies and the sector as a whole, then, is to maintain their mission and their identity and not to allow them to be defined by or hijacked by funders.
Goldberg believes that broad-based and extensive coalitions increasingly will be important in the decades ahead. In their service to children, families, and communities, the Alliance and its members touch almost every facet of American life. “Adjacency is a very important concept,” Goldberg explains. “We’re continuously working to network with foundations and other organizations in the field that are adjacent to children and families, cultivating people and functions, and building a web of connections and influence.” The New Age of Aging project, for example, is closely involving the Alliance with the National Council on Aging and other government and non-government organizations.
At the local level, Goldberg believes that member agencies must create greater synergies between their organizations and their communities. He emphasizes that the organizational mission is a public trust, and that every agency has a dual responsibility to the community as well as its own organization. Innovation, flexibility, and responsiveness are essential to ensure the mission is relevant to the community’s changing needs.
The economic downturn that began in 2008 was a clarion call to nonprofit boards. Strong boards are crucial to the future viability of the Alliance and its member organizations. Yet nonprofit boards do not enjoy a good reputation, observes Tom Harvey, former senior director of member services at the Alliance. Harvey is now director of the Master of Non-profit Administration Program at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and co-author of Nonprofit Governance: The Why, What, and How of Nonprofit Boardship. (Corby Publishing, Notre Dame, Ind., 2009) Recent studies by the Urban Institute, Boardsource, and others give nonprofit boards low marks in performance.
Harvey notes a new and significant trend: “Because of pressures for accountability and responsibility, boards now are assessed in terms of the quality of their decisions and the processes they use to arrive at those decisions. External reviewers from national agencies, accrediting bodies, funders, and others are including board assessments in their review processes. It is a trend that should serve as an important additional stimulus for boards to improve their functioning and the quality of their decisions.”
“Good governance occurs when a board has a passion for its mission, a commitment and strong connection with its community, and is engaged in ensuring its services are meaningful, relevant and first rate,” says Bob Jones, president and CEO, Children’s Aid and Family Services in Paramus, N.J., and chair of the Alliance’s Resource Development Solutions Advisory Committee.
Helping Clients Gain Economic Self-Sufficiency
Helping families attain economic self-sufficiency has been a fast growing trend over the past few decades. More and more child and family service agencies are marrying traditional services to help families work through personal and family issues with services that help them achieve economic self-sufficiency—and thus stabilize their lives.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act of 1996 was a fundamental shift in ideas about how best to help low-income Americans gain greater economic self-sufficiency. The act closely tied welfare and work. Thus, human service agencies sought new ways to help disadvantaged and disabled people gain financial well-being and become less dependent upon the public sector for support. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s focus on family economic success is an emphatic statement of support for this concept. Ways to Work, a sister program to the Alliance, is one such successful response. In 2008 alone, $16 million was raised to expand this program that blends human services with economic self-sufficiency services. In addition, many Alliance and United Neighborhood Centers of America (UNCA) members offer financial literacy programs, credit counseling, workforce development, support of entrepreneurship, and other programs.
“There is a clear relationship between strong children and families on the one hand and strong neighborhoods and communities on the other,” says Goldberg. “It is more than just tactical. It is more than just a program or a revenue stream. It has to do with how we define our core competencies, our core strategies, and even our mission in the future. The organizations that collectively make up the membership of the Alliance and UNCA are equipped to move mountains in expanding programming, reaching more constituencies, and being a very relevant partner in this entire movement.”