Unlocking the Power of Human Services to Build Strong Families and Communities
By: Tracy Wareing Evans and Susan N. Dreyfus
Imagine a country where every citizen has the ability to reach their full potential—a country where families and communities have access to the building blocks that sustain well-being and a foundation of supports provided by a range of systems working collaboratively across sectors that enable all to thrive.
This is the shared goal we have for our nation — a goal that is fully attainable and yet under challenge today by a lack of understanding about the critical role and value that human services community-based organizations (CBOs) play in ensuring all people can live their lives fully. CBOs help build the human capital of our nation that in turn is key to achieving a healthy and vibrant America.
These were among the findings of a groundbreaking new report commissioned by our organization, the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities and the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) and prepared by Oliver Wyman and SeaChange Capital Partners. A National Imperative: Joining Forces to Strengthen Human Services in America report examines the economic and social impact of CBOs and provides a call-to-action for the human services sector, government, the business and philanthropic sectors to strengthen and preserve the role of CBOs in the greater human services ecosystem. (Click to read the full report here.)
Consider the impact of CBOs on individuals and families. They are the backbone of a human services ecosystem that touches the lives of an estimated one in five Americans — providing vital supports that range from affordable housing and transportation, to employment supports, early childhood development and education, preventive health and behavioral health services, supports for older Americans, and more.
Because they operate at the nexus of families and communities and the systems that support them, CBOs have the potential to deliver more targeted, “upstream” human services that prevent the need for deeper-end services and more effectively identify and address root causes when families encounter roadblocks along the way.
This could have a transformative impact across a number of related and expensive systems, including the health care, education, judiciary, and corrections systems, to name a few.
There is an often-overlooked economic impact of CBOs as well. Human services CBOs employ more than three million Americans and generate in excess of $200 billion per year in economic activity through spending on wages, rent, fuel, and all the other inputs necessary to run organizations and deliver services in communities.
While human services CBOs are providing clear value today, their potential value is much greater than what has been realized thus far. Against the backdrop of an increasing need for human services, driven by poverty rates, income inequality, an aging population, the impact of the opioid epidemic, and other life-stressors, the financial stability of CBOs is increasingly tenuous, which will make realizing their transformative potential and contributions to a healthy society and strong economy difficult.
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 will require a comprehensive response by human services CBOs, government and the philanthropic sector.
CBOs must be able to develop their capacity for innovation by ensuring a focus on both excellence in services and delivering measurable and meaningful outcomes.
This can only happen through better data sharing and analysis, the ability to implement best practices with continuous quality improvement, modern technological strategies, and meaningful knowledge and leadership exchange within and across sectors. This means adopting more robust finance and financial risk management capabilities and developing strategic partnerships and networks that can broaden their strengths and reach.
Public and private funders will also need to recognize the importance of CBO capacity for innovation, and the need to support it through funding. Funding should be targeted to outcomes and results rather than outputs or services delivered and financial resources should be allocated for supporting the development and success of innovative partnerships that focus on generating solutions together.
Regulators at all levels should engage with human services CBOs in reviewing and reforming CBO regulations, including litigation risk, which has become a serious issue for these organizations.
Our report makes a clear and compelling financial and business case for making these long overdue changes, given the potential for larger economic and social returns. It also makes a strong case for the moral imperative of a strong and vibrant human services ecosystem with CBOs working as a vital partner.
To achieve these goals will require our nation to embrace the value and dignity of every human being — and the transformative power of a strong and well-equipped human services ecosystem — to transform our society and help us all achieve our full potential. An investment in the ability of CBOs to play their vital role in that ecosystem will, in the long term, result in a healthier, more productive, and prosperous America.
Tracy Wareing Evans is the President and CEO of the American Public Human Services Association.
Susan N. Dreyfus is the President and CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities.