Unlocking the power of human services to build strong families and communities

Enabling individuals to reach their full potential means providing access to the building blocks that sustain wellbeing — supports like early childhood development and education, preventive health and behavioral health services, affordable housing and transportation, workforce training, services for older Americans, and more.

Human services organizations like Family Service Madison Inc. work on a local level, in partnership with government and the philanthropic sector, to provide those supports that enable healthy, equitable communities.

Despite these tangible impacts, human services community-based organizations (CBOs) like ours are facing challenges and threats to our capacity to do all that’s needed to build strong families and communities and contribute to the economic health of both Madison residents and this nation.

These are the conclusions of a groundbreaking new report commissioned by the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities and the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA). “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 for the human services sector, government, and the philanthropic sector to strengthen and preserve the role of CBOs in the greater human services ecosystem.

As a nonprofit community partner, we are part of the backbone of a human services ecosystem that touches the lives of an estimated one in five Americans, according to the report. Collectively, the human services sector employs more than 3 million Americans and generates in excess of $200 billion per year in economic activity nationwide through spending on wages, rent, fuel, and all the other inputs necessary to run organizations and deliver services.

While human services CBOs are providing clear value today, our potential value is much greater than what has been realized so far. 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 increasingly tenuous, which will make realizing our 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.

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The human services sector must develop its capacity for innovation to deliver increasingly better outcomes, and through improved data sharing and analysis, better deployment of technological strategies, and stronger connections among leaders to share knowledge and solutions. This means adopting more robust finance and financial risk management capabilities and the development of strategic partnerships across the sector that can broaden their strengths and reach.

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 rather than outputs or services delivered, and financial resources should be allocated for innovative partnership opportunities.

Regulators at all levels should engage with community-based human services organizations in a review and modernization of CBO regulation.

We all have a role to play in working together to ensure that the vital supports we offer across our sector, in partnership with other community organizations, government agencies, and the philanthropic sector, enable all Americans to reach their full potential and contribute toward a healthier and stronger America.

David Johnson, MSW, is president and CEO of Family Service Madison Inc. (FSM), a nonprofit human service agency based in Dane County that has supported families and communities since 1910. FSM is a member of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, a strategic action network of thousands of social sector organizations working across the nation to strengthen families and communities.

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