Picture this: In the New York City borough of the Bronx, Marlena and Jose Reyes had worked hard to provide for their family of four, often getting up before the sun rose to feed and get their children off to school before heading out to work. But their family hit hard times when Jose was injured on the job. The medical bills quickly added up, and, lacking disability coverage, he began to worry his family wouldn't be able to make ends meet. Soon, the family fell into financial crisis, and the threat of eviction became a very real and frightening possibility.
Fortunately, Marlena learned about a service provider collaborative in the community called that could help.
Stories like those of the Reyeses are common inside the walls of Familia Adelante, which connects families with a range of services, from health care to educational support to job training, all in a single location.
Comprised of three organizations — , the , and the —as well as , a mindfulness practitioner, Familia Adelante helps low-income families access services based on goals they set with the help of a coach. Each of the three agencies focuses on its area of expertise, and together they meet regularly to evaluate families' progress. In the situation in which the Reyes family found itself, Familia Adelante was able to help the Reyeses prioritize their short-term needs, establish a plan to get out of debt, and, because the organization has access to a full range of basic-need services, keep their home and maintain family stability.
Unfortunately, for many families and service providers, the reality is much different. Rather than collaborating, many nonprofits compete fiercely with other nonprofits for resources. With a limited amount of charitable dollars available, nonprofits tend to view each other as competitors rather than as allies working toward a common goal. It's a model that hurts nonprofits — and the people they are trying to serve.
What if there were a better strategy? What if there were a way to fund nonprofits that encouraged both efficiency and collaboration? It's a popular topic of conversation in philanthropy these days, and yet it's a model that has not been fully embraced.
The Case for Collaboration
In our work, we've seen how the competition for limited resources has resulted in a fragmented approach to service provision that undermines the value of those services for families in need. Too often, families are forced to start from scratch in their efforts to access services, filling out the same form multiple times for multiple agencies, then receiving a separate set of recommendations from each of those agencies. What's more, different agencies often will offer differing and/or conflicting advice. Families become overwhelmed. Parents become frustrated, unable to prioritize and plan their next steps. Children feel the lack of stability and bear the brunt of its effects. It's also difficult for busy family members to build solid, trusting relationships with representatives from multiple agencies.
In other words, it's a model that is broken. But there is some good news.
All of these problems are fixable, and the solution starts with how we approach and fund service provision.
To better meet the needs of working low-income families in New Jersey and the Bronx, the developed something called the Whole Family Approach, a collaborative, family-led approach to service provision that provides family members, children as well as adults, with the tools they need to set their own individual and family goals, establish a plan to reach those goals, and realize their dreams.
The Whole Family Approach
Pascale Sykes works with its grantee organizations to implement the approach through a collaborative model in which multiple agencies join together to provide a full spectrum of coordinated, complementary services designed to meet families' needs. Instead of funding a group of standalone agencies that operate siloed off from other nonprofits, we award funding to nonprofits on the basis of their willingness to work with others to promote family economic stability, adult and child well-being, healthy relationships, and family engagement with their communities.
To maximize their effectiveness, nonprofits and agencies that have bought into the Whole Family Approach capture and share information about their clients' goals, progress, and life changes in a centralized database, enabling partner agencies to see families as holistic entities with their own unique challenges, vulnerabilities, and strengths. Instead of operating individually, agencies participating in a collaborative begin to see other nonprofits in the collaboration not as competitors but as teammates they can lean on to organize priorities, share resources, and advance their mutual goals and objectives.
For example, Familia Adelante takes a "no wrong door" approach to service provision: if someone visits Mercy Center with a question about its services, that person will also learn what the Fiver Children's Foundation and other members of the collaborative have to offer. Families who sign up are assigned a life coach who can connect them with services to help them reach their short- and long-term goals. The coach may connect them with a financial counselor who teaches a class and can offer individualized advice and support. The overall effect is an environment in which families are encouraged, and feel more comfortable, asking questions about their progress and goals, and in which coaches are both empowered and equipped to pull together the various resources and services needed to help families meet those goals.
The model is not perfect (no service provision model is). For some organizations, coordinating their policies and procedures with other agencies can be a time-consuming logistical challenge. And employees can sometimes feel conflicted when they are expected to honor their original mission and, at the same time, advance the (usually complementary) mission of the collaboration.
That said, most of the feedback we've received from our grantee organizations suggests that participating in a collaboration has opened up opportunities that put them in a stronger position to fulfill their missions, scale their work, and help more families achieve their dreams. It's time for other foundations and philanthropists to consider what they can do to encourage collaboration in service provision through their funding models and support strategies. At the end of the day, collaboration enables all of us to better accomplish our missions and create meaningful, lasting change.
Frances Sykes is president and Jackie Edwards is vice president of strategic engagement at the , which promotes the integrity, independence, and well-being of working low-income families.To learn more, visit .