Over the years, I have had the chance to talk at length with a few EDs of large social service agencies critical to the safety net in the Bay Area. They are the ones facing the rising tide of joblessness, stress, food insecurity, and more. In the current political climate, many of them (especially ones that are downstream of federal funding) are facing the spectre of less resources.
The phrase I hear repeatedly is, "We have to figure out how to do more with less." Perhaps that has always been the mantra of executive directors from time immemorial, but it is especially pressing these days.
To do more with less, you have to plan. I would argue that every agency on the front lines should be in some in some deliberate strategic planning process around funding realities in the new political climate. If they haven't, they better be about to. Because the terms of the battle have changed and it would be foolish to keep deploying your troops as you have in past. You need to step back and survey your strategic options.
As I have contemplated how agencies can plan accordingly, I've rememberd several strategic conversations I've had with leading EDs in the past on this theme of "doing more with less." I was struck by a powerful common thread running through the repositioning moves they made. All of them are emphasizing strategic partnerships with other entities as a way to meet the demand, and some of these partnerships are quite creative.
To do more with less, you have to do more with others. That’s the mantra of our times.
Here are three examples of executive directors trying out new strategies of partnership.
1. Raise money for others
Avi Rose, executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of East Bay
, leads an agency that is a key provider of mental health services (for all demographics) in their geographic area. In the past two years, he has seen the clear signs of economic stress: a spike in the demand for short term financial assistance and mental health counseling often related to job loss. While the agency had the short term services to provide this crisis relief, it could not address the underlying triggering event, namely unemployment.
Avi chose not to build out even more services within his agency. He wanted to keep the strategic focus of his own agency tight, especially in a funding environment that was averse to supporting brand new programs. Instead, he went to funders and raised money to bring in another agency with established competencies in helping people find jobs, the Jewish Vocational Services (JVS). Avi’s agency saw an immediate surge in demand for the vocational services such that there is now a six week waiting list.
This is a wonderful example of strategic partnership where each partner saves the other from having to do something that would cost extra time and money. Avi doesn’t have to manage a whole new department or develop a whole new subject matter expertise. He just has to do what he’s been doing well: raising money from his donor base that trusts him and intuitively gets why employment matters to mental health. JVS doesn’t have to find a brand new funding source or market its services to a new client base. It just can do what it is good at: helping folks find jobs. And the service provided to the community takes a major step forward: if you are an individual in the East Bay that has lost your job and is struggling with depression, you can find your way to both mental health and vocational training coming in through either door.
2. Playing well with others
If there is one leader of a local safety net provider who theoretically might be tempted to think he doesn’t need others, it would be Jeff Bialik. Jeff is the ED of Catholic Charities CYO
(CCCYO) a $37M agency that spans four counties, and has 600 employees working in over 30 programs. Ironically, Jeff was one of the individuals I spoke with that was most passionate about leaving behind the big program mentality. “We need to focus on mission and outcome,” Jeff insisted, “and not just keeping our machines running.”
Focusing on the mission means recognizing the true enormity of the social problems being addressed. And that, according to Jeff, leads to “the recognition that we cannot stand alone – that we have to partner.”
However, for other smaller agencies, partnering with an agency as large as Catholic Charities isn’t always easy. It can carry the same risk as dancing with an elephant, where it’s all too easy to have your interests trampled -- even unknowingly -- by a much larger entity.
In talking with Jeff, I was struck that one way CCCYO has tried to address that risk is by dancing with even larger elephants (so to speak) when possible. A key partner for the agency is Mercy Housing
, a national scale player which builds affordable housing in 41 states. Mercy Housing has built a site in San Francisco and CCCYO provided the wrap around services to help the formerly homeless residents break the cycle of poverty. The duo is teaming up again to build a child development center near the housing site.
Interestingly, having the same partner has helped the agency learn how to dance better. In the past, CCCYO used to run the facilities as well as the services. “Over time,” Jeff notes, “we migrated to the current model in which Mercy Housing does what they do really well which is facilities, and we do what we do really well which is services."
I know CCCYO also partners with smaller agencies and I suspect that they try to do so thoughtfully and sensitively. But it is important to recognize that relative size does shape what partnerships will look like and there’s no escaping that fact. It seems to me that if you are always the largest one in your partnerships, that’s not healthy. Look also for some friends your own size.
3. Training others to do more
From a broad historical perspective, the professionalization of nonprofit work is one of those seismic shifts that took place so gradually that it is easy to forget what a profound change it actually has been. For centuries in the civilized world, the people responsible for caring for those in need were religious institutions or other civic associations. It has only been in the last century or so that there has been this notion of a secular, educationally trained, accredited, and bureaucratically managed person called a “nonprofit professional.”
Once having come into existence, this professional identity is one that has become important to the nonprofit community. We insist that we are professionals deserving of the same recognition, pay, and respect as other types of professionals. We’ve developed even more degrees, accredited programs, and standards. And we would bristle at the notion that our work is so pedestrian that “anyone could do it.”
Yet that’s the very notion behind Mark Bontrager’s innovative strategy for partnership.
Mark is the ED of ALDEA Children and Family Services
, one of the largest nonprofit providers of mental health in Marin and Solano Counties. The different communities within these counties are spread out geographically so it is a challenge for ALDA to get their services located close to the points of need. But the economic crisis has meant stress related mental health concerns have rippled throughout the area.
Mark has responded by pioneering a program that has his staff train local community people – pastors, civic leaders, librarians, etc. – to serve as “triage” workers for mental health. They are trained to recognize symptoms of illnesses like depression, psychosis, anxiety and others, and perform some “first aid” responses. This strategy is not just a cost saving one. Mark says, “I believe firmly that this function of care should belong within the community, not in some agency.”
This notion that mental health work doesn’t necessarily require a trained professional and can be undertaken by the broader community is actually difficult to fund. Current funding focuses on the professional as the gatekeeper for care, determining eligibility and insurance coverage. Mark feels an important frontier is to convince funders that programs that actually empower the community to care for itself deserve more support.
That's how three leaders on the ground are doing more with less with others. What are you doing?