Three years ago, several nonprofit organizations serving youth and families in King County faced a funding crisis.
Much has been written about COVID-19’s impact on the non-profit sector. But even before the pandemic, 64,000 youth in King County lived in poverty. They were more likely to experience higher rates of poor health outcomes, violence, and incarceration. Several agencies serving youth closed and others merged to share costs.
These organizations were crucial to King County’s plan to ensure the next generation can thrive. They provided after-school programs, mental and physical health services, and violence prevention programs.
When faced with this funding crisis, leadership at these organizations realized they had to come together and find a sector-wide solution.
They identified chronic under-funding of government contracts as the key reason organizations were on shaky ground. Staff struggled to survive on poverty wages, and leadership suffered high rates of burnout. Plus, there was—and still remains— little government funding to invest in infrastructure, training, or innovation. If nothing changes, society at large will pay the price when our youth are poorer, sicker, and in jail.
At our October meeting, Brave Commitments decided to focus our efforts on a three-pronged strategy:
First, to advocate directly with funders to only issue contracts that pay the full cost of services. Most people don’t realize that contracts with the state, counties, and cities often only cover 80% of the cost of providing services. The non-profit organizations working under these contracts are expected to fundraise to cover the difference—which can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. As one of my colleagues at Brave Commitments remarked, “When Sound Transit is awarded a contract, no one asks them to fundraise 20% of the cost to build a public transit system. Why are human services agencies expected to do so?”
I call on government funders to consider appropriately funding contracts as an equity issue.
Second, following the lead of colleagues in New Your City, we are exploring creating an RFP (Request for Proposal) rating tool that will analyze funding opportunities as they are announced. This tool will be used to assess whether a proposed government contract is adequately funded, and if the outcomes and requirements are reasonable. Having this analysis completed prior to the application due date will help organizations—especially smaller ones—make a good decision about whether to apply, saving staff time and avoiding contracts that are not set up for success. It will also open a dialogue between organizations and government funders about the specific issues and challenges associated with a particular proposal. I call on government funders to consider appropriately funding contracts as an equity issue.
In short, I want justice for my staff.
Third, Brave Commitments is creating a vision of a system centered on the youth and families we serve, grounded in equity. Most of the agencies sitting at the Brave Commitments table are White-led organizations. We all agreed that the leaders of these agencies must commit to undergoing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training with two goals at the forefront: 1) to dismantle their own biases about “who is qualified to lead and why”, and 2) to identify aspiring leaders of color.
I hope this process will bring in more BIPOC (Black Indigenous Persons of Color) voices to Brave Commitments, adding a depth and diversity of experience. Our vision of a healthy, non-profit sector must start with us doing the work in our own organizations.
Now is the time to create a youth and family services system read for a post-pandemic world.
A few years ago, philanthropist Peter Buffet called attention to the so-called Charitable Industrial Complex, describing philanthropy as a form of “conscience laundering” because it seemed to tolerate vast inequalities in society. He said, “The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over.”
As I write this, there are efforts within King County and City of Seattle to address pay equity among subcontractors. Whether this is picked up by the new Mayor remains to be seen.
I call on all city, county, and state agencies to fully fund non-profit organizations providing services to families and youth. Now is the time to recreate a youth and family services system ready for a post-pandemic world. This means investing in our staff and creating a robust infrastructure—founded on principles of equity—that we can be proud of for generations to come.