Illustration by Yuxin Qin
Nonprofit human service organizations consist of a wide range of organizations focusing on delivering solutions to communities through health care, housing assistance, family-oriented services, youth development, and more. Services that were once provided primarily by the government have slowly shifted to the nonprofit sector to reduce government spending. Although this push has helped nonprofits scale their programs and develop more professional modes of operation, this support often comes at the expense of failure to cover full costs of program implementation, complex application and reporting processes, changes to contracts made by funding agencies with little decision-making power on the organizations, and late payments. This often leaves nonprofits in a vulnerable financial position as many service providers already have liabilities exceeding their assets, low cash reserves, and negative operating margins.
Despite these challenges, nonprofits still have the power to appropriately respond to these circumstances and ensure that they continue delivering mission-focused results. Effective service delivery and adherence to mission requires nonprofit leaders to commit to outcomes. Defining your organization’s intended outcomes serves as a starting point in aligning your activities with your mission. In order to tie outcomes to mission, leaders must embrace and invest in outcome measurement.
One CEO of a local behavioral health and human service organization found value in program evaluation measures in his organization where there was no prior initiative to evaluate programs. Investing in a program evaluation department helped the leadership team develop a clear strategy with their first strategic plan. Additionally, this helped find weak spots in the organization’s services, highlighting the need for internal changes.
While evaluation is a helpful step, building a culture of innovation is equally impactful. In “A National Imperative,” a 2018 Marsh & McLennan Companies report, focusing on strengthening the human services sector and developing an organization’s capacity for innovation is seen as a key strategy in positioning one’s organization to adapt to changes. This process includes integrating services into packages, reducing barriers to access for clients, engaging in meaningful community partnerships, and implementing cost-effective administrative approaches. Speaking specifically to service packaging, initiatives like the HUD Exchange’s Continuum of Care Program serves as a template for organizations and their partners to address a wide range of interconnected challenges that beneficiaries face. The model includes outreach to connect clients with services, providing immediate services to address current symptoms of the client’s circumstances, and providing wraparound services to help the client build skills to be self-sufficient and navigate the services available to them.
Although the HUD Exchange’s Continuum of Care focuses specifically on homelessness, other coalitions use a similar framework to address specific issues. For example, child welfare organizations may implement a child welfare continuum to provide supportive services to children and their families. Implementing a continuum of care for smaller organizations may require nonprofit leaders to engage in effective partnerships across the sector, leveraging the organization’s distinct skills to better serve their communities.
Furthermore, nonprofits must ensure that their mission comes first in the decision-making process. Large decisions require careful consideration as to whether they will help the organization achieve its mission. Declining a lucrative contract may result in the organization missing out on funds, but it ensures that the organization remains focused on its own mission.
Nonprofits must continue adapting to changes in a highly-regulated field. Although government funding comes with its challenges, it is not solely a barrier as these funds still enable nonprofits to scale programs and deliver necessary services. Effective leaders will consider the benefits of partnerships and internal initiatives that foster a positive organizational culture in service to its mission.
Kurtis Espino is a 2021 graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. He is the Marketing & Development Coordinator at Arizona’s Children Association. He has worked for child welfare and behavioral health organizations for five years in both direct services and administrative roles.