Home > Capacity Building, Don Crocker > Securing the Social Safety Net: Can We Create a Better Flashlight?

Securing the Social Safety Net: Can We Create a Better Flashlight?

Economic volatility continues its strangle-hold on our daily news – locally, nationally, and globally.  The news is not good – shrinking financial resources; increasing human needs – urging us to consider a different future.  Futurist, Thomas Frey, has said, “Much like walking through a dark forest with a flashlight, the future only comes into focus a short distance in front of us. So how do we create a brighter flashlight?”

Last week the Support Center hosted a conversation among leaders of the nonprofit and philanthropic sector.  The discussion focused on the question “how we will be able to secure an eroding social safety net in our region in the midst of significant government funding cutbacks?”  Our panel – representing the fields of grantmaking, research, advocacy, service, and merger/collaboration, set the stage for what we hope will be an ongoing conversation.  At the Support Center, we think about the “social safety net” as being far more than just simple benefits and entitlements for those who are vulnerable.  We see the safety net as an integrated system of partners – government, philanthropy, nonprofits, and communities – all working together to insure a just, safe, and healthy life for all, including those who are living in poverty and who are the most vulnerable in our neighborhoods.

Spurred by keynote speaker Doug Bauer from the Clark Foundation, panelists agreed that “the current social safety net is not the one we need”.  The economics of the current model do not work – the need has gone up, public resources have gone down, and both will continue to do so.

According to reports from the Fiscal Policy Institute, poverty rose sharply during the recession, increasing by well over one percentage point in New York City, New York State, and in the United States from 2008 to 2010. The official poverty rate is now about 15 percent in the state and 20 percent in New York City.

The human/social cost of high unemployment is the biggest threat today.  It affects everyone, but is concentrated among low income communities.  Individuals receiving food stamps have increased by 70% in last four years – from about 1.1 million to 1.8 million.  The economic outlook is clear–pressures will continue for the foreseeable future, challenging the safety net in ever greater ways.

So the question was posed, “How do we get to the 2.0 Social Safety Net and what might it look like?”  All presenters agreed that we need a different structure, a renewed vision.  Also agreed, it is important that nonprofit leaders –those of us working, day-to-day, trying to deliver these services– take the lead in constructing it. The voices and perspectives of those closest to the needs will be critical to changing the current models.

Panelists and nonprofit leaders in the room offered these thoughts as ways to begin action toward making the changes that will be needed:

  • Advocacy – Our biggest challenge is how we mobilize sector to think in terms of “change” – to really rethink the safety net given limited resources at the government level.  Unemployment, poverty, and homelessness are problems that impact all of us – and we are a country of great wealth that needs to collectively rethink our investment in “caring” for our communities.  We must prepare our leaders, including board members, to be strong advocates.
  • Be Proactive and Expand the Definitions – We have to demand more of ourselves and elected officials. If we’re going to attack poverty and not attack racism and sexism, we might as well not do it. We can’t attack poverty until we address these problems as part of the root cause of poverty.
  • Employment and Entrepreneurship – The human and social cost of high unemployment is the biggest threat today.  It affects everyone, but is concentrated among low income communities.  It’s time for the nonprofit sector to adopt an “entrepreneurial” mindset at all levels, as many of our old models do not work.   There are clearly emerging opportunities for combining services in different ways, collaborating with other organizations, or creating more earned income.
  •  Working Capital – Philanthropists need to think more broadly about the use of their endowments and go beyond grants.  Access to working capital is a confounding issue for many service organizations and is a major obstacle to creating a nimble, efficient system.  Program related investments that free up cash to help organizations manage through cash flow crises are critical.
  • Sectors Working Together – Government, philanthropy, and nonprofits need to collaborate more regularly and more deeply.  This is a real challenge – because we all live in silos.  We can’t get too stuck in our old ways–we need to let go – sometimes it is our identity and autonomy that gets in our own way.  Boards and key leaders need to get beyond the idea that “someone has to give something up” if we collaborate and find ways to create innovative win-win partnerships.  This will take some time, and some pain, but history suggests it can be done.
  • Increased Board Engagement –Board and organizational leaders must be willing to step back from their day to day work and ask hard fundamental questions – Why do we exist? What are we trying to change?  What is our role in this?  While evidence-based outcomes and other metrics are important to nonprofits and their funders, sometimes the strong focus on providing “good outcomes” can inadvertently move nonprofits away from serving the most vulnerable (hardest to turn-around) populations.  Boards can partner with staff to keep mission and service focus clear and consistent.
  • Capacity building – Experience shows that “high touch” capacity building works best—this means funders will need to be more engaged with their grantees around building organizational capacity, understanding organizational life cycles, and determining new and effective organizational structures.  Good capacity building work means more than just giving advice; it means guiding assessment, planning, and helping with implementation to ensure successful outcomes.

So where are we headed from here?   Some funders are already providing funding for nonprofit collaborations.  An example of a fund that was developed specifically for that purpose is the New York City Merger, Acquisition, and Collaboration Fund (NYMAC), a presenter and participant in our conversation.

It is good to know that there is some early thinking and resources being contributed to change, but the question remains “What will our future look like”?  In closing, I offer a few additional quotes from Futurist Thomas Frey to fuel the conversation: “Until now, ours has been a dance with the ordinary”, “We only value that which we struggle to achieve”, and “The past is past, so get over it.”  Let us know your thoughts!



Don Crocker



The Support Center works with grantmakers and nonprofit organizations to effectively manage change including Organization Assessments, Turnarounds, Restructuring and Executive Transitions.

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