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Innovation can help meet the challenges faced by human services nonprofits

Public and private funders need to recognize the importance of the capacity for innovation, and the need to support that through funding.

Recent articles in the media have raised awareness of the changing face of philanthropy and the challenges confronting nonprofits.

Molly Greenman

The Family Partnership is one of many community-based organizations (CBOs) that play a vital role in creating healthy, equitable communities. Our impact on the communities we serve is significant: 92 percent of students in our high-quality therapeutic preschools, all of whom come from low-income homes, graduate ready for kindergarten; 82 percent of counseling clients make good to excellent progress on their goals; and 76 percent of participants in our program for victims of sex trafficking successfully escape and begin to build better futures.

Despite these tangible impacts, CBOs, The Family Partnership included, face challenges and threats to our capacity to do all that is needed to build strong families and communities, and contribute to the economic health of Minnesota and this country.

A call to action

A groundbreaking new report commissioned by the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities and the American Public Human Services Association and written by Oliver Wyman and SeaChange Capital Partners outlines the challenges facing CBOs. “A National Imperative: Joining Forces to Strengthen Human Services in America” examines the economic and social impact of CBOs and provides a call to action to strengthen and preserve their role in the greater human services ecosystem.

As a nonprofit community partner, we work in tandem with public agencies, like Hennepin County, to provide critical assistance that enables people to lead healthier and more productive lives. As part of an ecosystem that touches the lives of an estimated one in five Americans collectively, the human services sector employs more than 3 million Americans and generates more than $200 billion per year in economic activity nationwide!

While human services CBOs are providing clear value today, our potential impact is much greater than what has been realized so far. However, against the backdrop of an increasing need for human services — driven by poverty rates, income inequality, an aging population and the challenge of the opioid epidemic — the financial stability of the human services sector is deeply threatened.

According to the study’s findings, too many CBOs operate under persistent deficits, have few or no financial reserves, and lack access to capital to invest in technology and modern data sharing tools. Addressing these complex and interrelated challenges requires a comprehensive response by nonprofits, government and the philanthropic community.

The need for innovation

The human services sector must develop its capacity for innovation to deliver increasingly better outcomes, including improved data sharing and analysis, better deployment of technological strategies, adoption of best practices, and sharing knowledge of effective solutions. This also means adopting more robust finance and financial risk management capabilities and developing strategic partnerships to broaden reach and deepen impact.

Public and private funders will also need to recognize the importance of the capacity for innovation, and the need to support that through funding. Funding should be targeted to outcomes and results and support the infrastructure needed to produce and measure them. Financial resources should be allocated for innovative partnership opportunities, and recognize the true cost of collaboration. CBOs cannot be expected to do public work, if we are not compensated for the true cost of doing that work.

This year, The Family Partnership celebrates 140 years of service to Minnesota. For five generations, we have partnered with philanthropy, government, and communities to build a path for family success. We are continuously innovating and adapting to meet evolving needs through our core program areas: counseling, education, and advocacy. Like most nonprofits, we work on a micro-level to provide the tools needed for families to overcome a chronic lack of resources. But, our commitment to the global community of CBOs and our pivotal role within the larger human services ecosystem is steadfast.

We all have a role to play to ensure that the economic and social returns provided by CBOs are matched with investments to improve and strengthen our impact. It is critical that we do not become crippled by the same chronic lack of resources that we strive to prevent for the families and children we serve.

Molly Greenman, president and CEO of The Family Partnership, serves as board chair of the national Alliance for Strong Families and Communities Board of Directors. The Alliance is a network of more than 400 high-impact human-serving organizations across the United States who share a common vision of creating a healthy and equitable society so children, adults, and families may achieve their full potential.

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