Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Lessons from the Frontlines: Local Funding in Human Services

by Rick Allen, President & CEO
Posted January 23, 2012, The Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity (

We have hundreds of effective early learning programs around the nation, yet many kids start school unprepared to learn and succeed. Millions of dollars are spent on programs to end homelessness, but the scourge remains. Affordable housing groups toil across the country, yet many families struggle to put a roof over their heads.

The problem is that while individual human service programs may succeed in helping those they serve directly, as a society we are often unable to achieve collective success.

That doesn’t mean progress is impossible, and part of the solution belongs to funders. It’s time for local funders to move beyond program-level thinking to a true system-wide approach focused on communities.

As someone who has spent two decades as a local funder, it’s clear to me how far the funding community has come—and how far it still has to go.

If you work in human services, let me begin by posing these questions, using early learning as an example: what is the overall community plan in your city or county to advance the early learning effort? For those who now fund early learning efforts, how does the program you fund fit into the overall community plan? Is the work of those you fund known and supported by the larger network of early learning providers in your community?

If you are a funder, my bet is you can’t answer the above questions. If you are a provider, you probably haven’t engaged in those conversations with your service area compatriots, whether that service area is early learning, affordable housing, domestic violence prevention, improved graduation rates, or some other area of human services.

Yes, you all know each other and talk together. That doesn’t mean you’ve collectively agreed to the same priorities in a community plan to advance your particular area of service.

We are all working independently or in small collaborative efforts, often around a grant. We are funded in program silos, with little ability and few resources to leverage a broader community plan that identifies key needs in a larger service area system, or key strengths upon which to build.

We have lots of random acts of useful kindness, but few community plans to advance a collective effort in a particular service area on a larger scale.

There are undoubtedly numerous dynamics in play, some beyond anyone’s control.

Yet some of the vital areas for improvement rest squarely on the shoulders of those who fund human service efforts, including governments, foundations, United Ways, and even individuals. Until some things change at the funder level, little else will.

What could funders begin to do differently? A few ideas I’ve seen work in my area include:
  • If you’ve been funding programs, give serious thought to better understanding the larger network of providers related to those programs, and what the strengths and weaknesses are in that network of services.
  • When asked to fund a program component in a particular service area, ask, “How does your program fit into the overall community plan in this area of service?”
  • Consider funding a series of meetings bringing together all of the players in a focused area of service, such as early learning; help to fund the development of an overall community plan to advance the collective effort. That plan might include identifying strengths and weaknesses, a common set of advocacy priorities, potential natural funding partners, and system evaluation.
  • Be willing to fund priorities identified in a collective plan that you do not currently fund, or better yet, be willing to fund all of the actual plan.
  • Allow your current grantees to spend some of your money to work collectively with others in their network of providers; provide more funding flexibility.
These are just a few ideas, and I’m sure there are others.

For those who say that funders will never change, just look at the last 30 years. The requirement to measure and report outcomes in human services is now widespread, yet this was not nearly as prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s and even into the 1990s.

We have moved from “How many are you serving?” to “What difference did your service make to these individuals in their lives?”—largely because funders decided to change from an “allocation” mentality to a “return on investment” mentality. The expected return includes a concrete assessment of how lives have been genuinely improved.

In this time of obvious austerity, and in what many suggest is a near-crisis in human services, it seems an opportune time to take the next step in getting smarter about our human service investments. It’s time to move from thinking exclusively about programs and to begin working to establish and strengthen true human service systems in our communities.