Throughout the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities’ more than 100-year history, the organization has responded to disruption by facing dramatic change; recognizing the possibilities; and leaning into the future with strength, courage, and a willingness to risk and adapt.
Our legacy, shared with that of the nonprofit human-serving sector, is grounded in distinction as a social movement to help all people achieve their full potential. Whether it is in the way we engage those we serve, the quality and effectiveness of our programs and services, or our passion for advocacy, we have always risen to seize opportunities for transformation.
The Alliance was created by and for its members who work with and through their network to serve and support each other in a spirit of reciprocity. Together, we are a catalyst, disruptor, thought leader, solution creator, and a collective force for social good.
The roots of today’s Alliance run deep. In fact, the seeds were planted more than half a century before its predecessor organization was founded in 1911. The first charity organization society in the U.S. was founded in Buffalo, New York, in 1877. The movement grew rapidly, with the goal of coordinating relief resources in the community and restoring individuals and families to self-sufficiency.
In 1911, the National Association of Societies for Organizing Charity, the Alliance’s first predecessor organization, was founded to share information, raise standards of operation, and prevent poverty. The Association was founded as a membership federation of and for its members. To uphold high standards, a committee on membership and credentials reviewed and voted upon applications for membership.
Within its first decade of service, the Association made a pivotal change in direction. Organized initially to investigate relief cases and refer them to appropriate agencies in the community, member organizations increasingly were providing direct relief. In a 1919 survey, membership was unequivocal about future direction: The family was the defined unit of service.
Until the Great Depression, relief efforts fell primarily to voluntary organizations and religious groups. In the 1930s, the federal government took on responsibility for social welfare with widespread New Deal programs to combat poverty. Public and private organizations began to partner in delivery of social services. With greatly heightened demand for services and a government-funded safety net, both child and family service agencies expanded the scope of services and assisted families of all income levels with increasing overlap in programming. Amidst the rapid transformation of relief programs from voluntary social organizations to public agencies, the Association was especially concerned about maintaining and improving service standards. Its field service, research, and professional education arms mobilized to strengthen member agencies. Having lost impetus during the prosperity of the 1920s, the Association’s commitment to social action was reinvigorated. The organization and its network were outspoken advocates on issues and legislation addressing poverty, unemployment, and social welfare.
A decade after the introduction of public social welfare programs, the Association and its members again were called to reassess their cause and direction. In 1946, they defined their purpose as the prevention of family disorganization and breakdown. They directed that specialized therapeutic and family strengthening services should complement, not duplicate, the federal government’s relief function. Changing its name to Family Service Association of America, the Association renewed its focus on strengthening its membership network through development and training, ensuring excellence by raising the bar on organizational and practice standards, and exercising influence at the community and national level.
The 1960s ushered in revolutionary social change. With the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement, the federal government instituted massive social welfare programs and began purchasing services from community-based human-serving organizations. Questions arose about the relevance of the Association.
The Association commissioned a three-year study by Booz Allen Hamilton to reassess its primary purpose and priorities. The 1968 report concluded that the Association, indeed, had a distinctive purpose as a national federation of family service agencies. Highest priority should be given to leadership in influencing policies and programs affecting families, and to strengthening the Association as a central source of trendspotting, knowledge, and research about families.
In 1969, there were just two program services required of every Association member: family counseling and family life education. That year at the Association’s biennial meeting, African American members challenged the Association and its network to take strong action on behalf of African American families and civil rights. It was clear that advocating for families of every ethnicity and religion must be the essential third leg of the stool. Soon after the biennial, family advocacy became a core requirement for membership.
With dwindling United Way funding and increased government contracting for social services, the government was the primary source of funding for most Association members by the 1970s. Human-serving organizations had to meet rigid credentialing and regulatory requirements, heighten standards, build capacity, and raise funds for programs and operations. In 1977, the Association and the Child Welfare League of America worked together to create the Council on Accreditation, and independent certifying body for membership organizations.
In the late 1970s, the Association and its network found new ways to reach out to families and industry—and a major source of new revenue. The development of a for-profit employee assistance program business in 1979 (now called FEI Behavioral Health) was a major milestone for the organization. To this day, it provides the network with revenue-producing opportunities and provides resources to the national organization for capacity building.
Against the backdrop of increasing privatization, the Association understood that it was time once again to reaffirm its cause and purpose and prepare members for the future. In 1983, it transformed again to drive a social movement with and through the power and distinction of its national network. Changing its name to Family Service America, the organization adopted a new business model. Ever at the forefront of change, it was one of the first nonprofit organizations in the country to adopt the fiscal, managerial, and operational principles of the for-profit sector to expand reach and impact.
The last decades of the 20th century vacillated between prosperity and economic crises. Government funding for human services ebbed and flowed, but a new conservatism resulted in punitive legislation and harsh public opinion about social welfare. The human-serving sector was sharply criticized for contributing to a cycle of poverty and dependence without achieving long-term systemic change.
Family Service America believed that member organizations had to grow stronger and more comprehensive to serve mission and compete for government contracts. And Family Service America itself had to grow to strengthen and amplify its collective voice. The board targeted a growth plan that included affiliation with like-minded organizations. It also urged greater collaborations with public and private entities
A new mission, vision, and strategic plan emphasized advocacy as an essential function of both Family Service America and its members. It also redoubled its efforts to strengthen its members’ capacity to serve. With the growing recognition that the only way to achieve lasting social change is by empowering individuals and strengthening communities, Family Service America launched new community-based initiatives with member cohorts.
Over the decades, child and family services had been moving closer together. The recognition that children do best within strong families and must be served within the family context led to integrated services and increasing mergers. The deinstitutionalization movement was radically changing the traditional concept of children’s residential care. Thus, the 1998 merger of Family Service America and the National Association of Homes and Services for Children was a natural evolutionary step. The merger brought the field together in one national body, renamed the Alliance for Children and Families, and with a focus on home- and community-based systems and a far stronger voice for advocacy.
The economic crisis of the early 21st century sharply heightened demand for services. In addition, government funding cutbacks, decreased contract reimbursement, reduced charitable giving, and burdensome regulatory systems created the perfect storm for nonprofit human-serving organizations—and for the people they served. The need was urgent to reaffirm the sector’s distinction in the marketplace, organizational excellence, and powerful and collective voice for social advocacy.
In 2006, United Neighborhood Centers of America (UNCA, which originated as the National Federation of Settlement Houses) affiliated with the Alliance under its corporate structure, then known as Families International. The histories of these intrinsic partners are closely intertwined. With roots going back to the 1800s, both were officially founded in 1911 as separate but complementary organizations. Settlement workers directed their efforts toward entire neighborhoods, with student workers living among the poor as equals, working together to provide resources, foster healthy relationships, and build strong communities. From the beginning, these movements shared similar values and a deep commitment to advocacy and social justice. Over the course of more than a century, they increasingly intersected in partnerships to address common goals. In 2014, the organizations merged and the Alliance for Children and Families was renamed the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities.
The enduring values and approaches of the settlement house movement demonstrate that change, whether for the individual, family, or neighborhood, comes from the inside out. The Alliance formed the Center for Engagement and Neighborhood Building to elevate these values, spread these approaches, and exercise greater influence across all systems and sectors.
Building High-Impact Organizations
In the second decade of the 21st century, the Alliance is once again leaning forward into change, working with and through its network to prepare its members for a future landscape of intense disruption, formidable challenge, and transformative new opportunities. Amidst uncertain economic, political, social, and technological climates, the Alliance is providing powerful new tools to ignite excellence. Initiatives such as the Commitments of High-Impact Nonprofit Organizations provide a distinctive blueprint for nonprofit human-serving organizations to achieve meaningful impact and effect positive, lasting, change for both people and communities.
What will the Next Chapter Say?
Firmly grounded in a history of responsiveness, adaptation, and forward-leaning strategy, the Alliance has always kept one eye on the needs of today while looking ahead to those of tomorrow.
At its September 2015 meeting, the Alliance Board of Directors voted unanimously to engage the network in an intensive planning and visioning process called the Alliance of the Future. Led by a task force of board members and a diverse group of members, the process will conclude with a presentation of future direction at the 2016 Alliance National Conference.
As today’s stewards of the movement, it is time once again to seize disruption as a catalyst to reimagine our future. In doing so, we are advancing the cause of our forbearers, rejoining our role as an essential contributor and influencer in building strong, healthy, and thriving children, adults, families, and communities.