June 21, 2011

Government Funding of Human Services: What Would Breakthrough Solutions Look Like?

By: Daniel Stid


Several colleagues have pointed out something that I readily admit, namely, that there is disconnect between my take on the deteriorating conditions in the public funding of and support for human services, on the one hand, and the range of smaller-bore remedies I am proposing, on the other. If I am right about how bleak the fiscal situation is and how it will undermine the work of human service nonprofits struggling to hold up our social safety net, then simply encouraging these organizations to manage their program portfolios for impact and sustainability, increase their productivity, and measure and learn from their outcomes, etc., falls short of what is needed to really fix things. Taking these steps will enable nonprofit organizations to cope more effectively with the escalating problems, but it will certainly not solve them.

Clearly a more fundamental set of solutions is needed. But I resist resorting to the usual suspects that are being trotted out by observers and advocates in social sector – e.g., advocacy campaigns to build up support for full funding of human programs, or more extensive deployment of silver bullet solutions such as social innovation funds, social impact bonds, or approaches to collective impact that have been generating so much buzz recently. In the face of our grinding fiscal crunch, and the nasty political fights emerging from it, these won’t begin to penetrate down to the root causes of our current problems, and thus will not get us closer to a solution that works to improve and sustain human services for the long run. And they certainly won’t help an ED who is waking up at night worried about whether she can make payroll next month.

If you were to pin me down on what solutions adequate to the problems at hand might entail and where they might emerge, I’d point to some events, initiatives, and ideas surfacing in my home state of California.

[I will pause here for a bit to let readers stop chortling and/or climb back into their chairs.]

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