Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Upcoming Challenges For Non-Profit Social Service Organizations

Right now in non-profit, social service offices across the country, there are many people in leadership positions worried about the future. Some are worried about the funding for human services and whether or not it will be there for those who are currently being funded and for those who will need funding in the future. Others are worried about the many different challenges that those who are coming now into services bring to the agency, especially those who have a dual diagnosis such as a combination of mental health and substance abuse issues, or mental health and disability issues. Finally, some leaders are worried about the slow decline of qualified staff who are applying for open positions. During the recession, the number of applicants was steady, but now that the economy slowly improves, there is a decline in number of qualified applications. Thus, recruitment and retention issues are on the rise for many non-profits.

As I reflect on all of these concerns, I am reminded of an article I read many years ago called “The New Landscape For Nonprofits” by William P. Ryan in the 1999 January-February issue of the Harvard Business Review.  While there are many wonderful insights in this article, especially when I read it again fourteen years after it was first published, there are a couple of key points that are quite pertinent to this spring’s situation.

First, Ryan points out that while for-profits are entering into the non-profit world to deliver service, the “real issue is whether nonprofits can adapt without compromising the qualities that distinguish them from for profit organizations.” I would expand on this perspective by noting that another issue from my perspective in 2013 is whether or not social service non-profits will compromise their own mission and core values to meet the demands of the county, state or federal government who funds them to deliver services. Right now, many organizations struggle to meet the increasing demands of documentation and systems discipline put forth by their funding sources and as a result are focusing on compliance to such a degree that they may be compromising their own core philosophies related to service delivery. 

Now this situation of meeting funders’ expectations is not new for social service non-profits but the challenge is that many of their staff over the last 5-7 years have been trained to follow a specific perspective about service delivery and now believe that the organization is out of alignment with what it said is most important and what it actually does within the context of service delivery. For example, front line staff in these organizations often share with me in seminars the following question: “Which is more important - the person served or the paperwork proving we served the person?” Leaders of these agencies often reply “Both.” But front line supervisors and staff need a more detailed answer to such a complex and multi-layered question. At this time period, I think many leaders struggle with delivering a clear answer that can be understood and cascaded down into the organization. Furthermore, I do not believe this misalignment is going to go away any time soon. Nevertheless, people in leadership positions need to address this issue and choose to either adapt their mission and core values to the new reality or acknowledge that the potential for a misalignment could happen, and then discuss this openly and collectively as an organization. 

Second, Ryan back in 1999 in the aforementioned article notes that the growth of outsourcing will continue and may even be “unstoppable.” With 20/20 hindsight, we now know that this pattern of solving problems through outsourcing is clearly the new normal for all organizations, be they for profit or non-profit. From a forward looking perspective, there continues to be a question about what social service non-profits can be most effective at over time.  

Remembering the work of Jim Collins in his monograph called Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Collins points out that there are three key questions that all social service organizations need to address. First what are you deeply passionate about? Second, what can you be the best in the world at? And third, what drives your resource engine? The answers to each question, first proposed back in 2005, are still relevant today, especially with the funding and service challenges before social service non-profits. And when an organization or agency addresses these complex, yet simple appearing questions, I am sure that quite a few will realize they need to stop doing certain things or consider outsourcing them to more qualified organizations who are more passionate about doing them extremely well.

Third, Ryan notes that “big is beautiful.” As he explains, “Size confers several benefits on an organization: economies of scale, opportunities to manage risk across contracts, the ability to compete for contracts that require a wide range of services, and even the ability to recruit good employees with the promise of advancement in a growing organization.” Given the aforementioned challenges related to the development and maintenance of an in-depth infrastructure to assure quality and adequate electronic documentation, many organizations are going to struggle to build and sustain such systems and infrastructure while simultaneously being able to expand their service delivery foot print. They will want to be big and growing, but may be limited by resources available to support both growth and operational infrastructure at the same time.

Furthermore, these current challenges will not go away. Instead, I suspect they will increase during the coming years. It appears that many non-profit social service organization are continuing to be defined and judged by more corporate for-profit parameters and expectations. During upcoming strategic planning sessions for these agencies, those involved will need to recognize that being thorough, responsive and nimble are going to become more and more important within the social service sector during the next 5-7 years. 

The future of non-profit social services will always be dynamic. The question of who will deliver the best services in the most effective and efficient manner will not go away. The first step today is to realize that we will need to continue to expand our leadership and management capacity to meet these rising expectations as well as reflect on what we deem to be most important. Likewise, we also need to keep moving forward strategically and operationally without compromising the organization’s mission and core values. The challenges are great and the work is important. Now is the time to continue forward with great thought, effort and perspective. 

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

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