Human service nonprofits confront huge challenges. They typically must piece together funding from multiple federal, state, and local government agencies, each with maddeningly disparate programs and reporting requirements. Even though these nonprofits often deliver services that government is by law required to provide, funding agencies may reimburse them at rates far short of their true cost to deliver these services-and, increasingly, long after the bills are due. Meanwhile, our chronic economic problems are bringing more people to the doors of these charities than they can afford to serve. It would be tempting to suggest that, to break through these difficulties, nonprofits need some new-fangled social innovations. But what they really need is to rediscover the sense of mission and quest for impact that brought them into existence in the first place. In short, these nonprofits need go back to the future.
In May, I had the opportunity to explore this imperative with nonprofit leaders participating in the Alliance for Children and Families' annual Executive Leadership Conference in San Antonio. I was invited to speak on the topic of "An Uncompromising Demand for Impact," which the Alliance predicts will be one of several "disruptive forces" driving a human services revolution in the years ahead. Many of the organizations at the conference trace their roots back to orphanages, homes for the wayward, and settlement houses founded in the 1800s. If they were looking for a role model, I suggested that they would do well to consider one of their forebears, Jane Addams, who began the settlement house movement when she founded Hull House on the Near West Side of Chicago in 1889.
This claim may seem like a stretch given that, after more than 120 years of operation, Hull House recently had to close its doors due to its overexposure to government cutbacks. But if we roll back the clock to Jane Addams' time, well before Hull House came to rely on government dollars, we can observe aspects of its work that set a great example for today. The response from my audience indicated that many of them see things the same way. Indeed, at one point Molly Greenman, the President and CEO of the Family Partnership in Minneapolis (founded in 1878), suggested that when in doubt, she and her fellow leaders should ask themselves: "WWJAD?" - i.e., what would Jane Addams do?
Let me highlight four things that Jane Addams would do-and that human service nonprofits can and should do today.
1) Focus not on what you do, but on what you are seeking to achieve. I've borrowed this phrase from Susan Dreyfus, the head of the Alliance, who sees this shift in mindset as essential. Government funding flows in isolated streams that effectively assume people have one particular problem-the problem that funding stream is intended to address. This leads to a siloed, service-centric mentality among the nonprofits that rely on these funding streams. Ask nonprofit leaders to describe their agency and they will typically answer that they do "child welfare," or "afterschool programs" or "behavioral health." The service-centric mindset clouds the vision of organizational leaders regarding the longer-run impact they want to achieve for the people and communities they serve. If programs and services are at the center of the work, people and communities cannot be. Jane Addams and her colleagues did not let their means (i.e., various programmatic activities) come to define their ends: making the Near West Side of Chicago a neighborhood where children and families could flourish - and, ultimately, driving similar reforms across the city, the state, and the nation.
2) Track data in order to learn and make progress. Nonprofits today are data-generating machines, tailoring reports to the particular requirements of each government funder. All this duplicative data, however, primarily serves the purpose of external reporting and accountability. Hull House collected and used data in a different way. The "Maps and Papers" of Hull House reflect a painstaking effort to understand its neighborhood and the economic and social challenges faced by the people who lived there. Hull House residents worked alongside Bureau of Labor staff to develop these breathtaking maps so they could bring that data to bear in their program and policy work-and, ultimately, to have a yardstick to assess their progress. Do the federally-funded Promise Neighborhoods of today have the same exquisitely detailed grasp of the communities they serve? How many have the drive and curiosity to develop one? How much better positioned would they be if they did?
3) Engage, listen to, and learn from the people you serve. Human service nonprofits support people dealing with serious problems that have led them to "present" to the system. While nonprofit leaders and staff may have come to their work in order to make a difference, by dint of their professional training and norms-and through the authority delegated to them by government agencies that often seek to monitor and control their beneficiaries-they can end up at a distance from their clients, and holding the upper hand in an implicit power relationship. In contrast, the volunteer residents of Hull House refused to use the word "client". They saw themselves working toward the same ends as the people they were living among and seeking to help. Addams and her colleagues learned and drew energy from the very different perspectives and experiences of these neighbors, and they focused and refined their work accordingly. They believed everyone had something to offer and something to learn-not least themselves.
4) Advocate for systems changes over and above funding and policy interests. As nonprofits come to rely more on government support, they understandably tend to focus their advocacy work, insofar as they engage in it, on the funding and policy streams that sustain them. They are less inclined to push for far-reaching systems changes that would bring benefits to the people and communities they serve over and above what they themselves provide. Addams pursued a much broader advocacy agenda. She understood that the work that Hull House performed in its community gave it a perspective and a voice to advance child labor laws, workmen's compensation, prison reform, anti-corruption measures, women's suffrage, etc. These local, state, and in many cases national policy changes, in turn, cleared the way for more accelerated progress in the place where Hull House focused its direct work.
Going back to the future in the ways described here will not be easy, but taken together these steps will help human service nonprofits escape the pitfalls they have fallen into through over-reliance on government funding. I am not suggesting that these organizations should operate in isolation from government, only that they need to reset their co-dependent and dysfunctional relationships with public funders. The good news is that bringing about this change ultimately depends not on money but on leadership.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license are available in our Terms and Conditions.