Local nonprofits are already familiar with the houses of worship, family advocates, and other resources and can connect people with what they need to navigate a crisis, or avoid it entirely.
The Biden administration has positioned the federal government as the antidote to society’s biggest and messiest problems. Many in philanthropy are joining him, calling for an expansion of government programs to cover the services offered adeptly by local nonprofits during the health and economic crises.
Ellen Friedman, executive director of the Compton Foundation, recently put it this way: “Our government should meet the communal needs that philanthropy has been backfilling — and that applies to health care, education, and other public needs.”
While government is a valued partner in protecting the vulnerable among us, nobody understands the needs of communities more than those living in them. As tempting as it may seem to turn to government to rescue us in this time of extreme hardship, let’s not lose sight of the distinct value that charities — especially those directly serving local communities — provide.
Government typically helps when someone is already in crisis. It is far less capable when it comes to offering the types of preventive measures people need before they get to that point. Take foster care, my area of expertise. Of the more than 22,000 reports received by the Florida Abuse Hotline last November, just 1,458 children were determined unsafe, and 3,859 met criteria for further assessments.
Programs run by government agencies aren’t generally equipped to provide practical advice to single parents struggling to keep their jobs and care for children while schools are closed. Many of these parents don’t qualify for support since they haven’t hit rock bottom. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t hurting.
Government Is Too Slow
In Ohio, for example, a young single mother recently left her children in a motel room to work her shift at a pizza shop. She was arrested, and her kids were taken away. The police were the last thing she needed — she just needed someone to help her create a child-care schedule without fear of losing her children. When these short windows of opportunity for prevention appear, time is of the essence, and government simply isn’t fast enough. Local charities are.
The experience of my organization, Better Together, is a case in point.
While Congress fought over relief funding, Better Together — which offers a voluntary alternative to foster care along with a jobs program for southwest Florida families — adapted quickly to meet the urgent needs of our community. We were able to remain fully operational during the pandemic.
Because we are local, we already knew the movers and shakers on the ground — the houses of worship, family advocates, nonprofits, employers, police, and volunteers. As we evaluated the needs of each family asking for help, we could immediately connect them to the people and resources necessary to navigate their crisis, or avoid it entirely.
With only six full-time staff during the pandemic, we turned to hundreds of local volunteers to provide temporary homes for 1,000 children while helping their parents find jobs, homes, child care, and treatment programs. Nearly all (98 percent) of the children we served in 2020 were able to reunify with their parents. The impact was life-changing for the kids who could stay out of foster care and spend the holidays at home with their families.
The Biden administration could step in and try to help these struggling families starting today, but it still would be too late for those 1,000 children.
Local charities across the country were similarly active this past year, adapting quickly to meet the sharp increase in needs on the ground. New nonprofits such as Invisible Hands sprang into action as the pandemic took hold, recruiting thousands of volunteers and delivering more than $1 million in food, medicine, and other essential items to vulnerable people in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
In Shreveport, La., the group Community Renewal deployed a range of strategies to restore hope in struggling communities by reconnecting people and turning neighborhoods into safe havens of friendship and support. Crime typically increases in hard economic times, yet major crime dropped an average of 44 percent in the five low-income areas where the group operates, despite the pandemic recession.
Families do not have time to wait for government to get its act together when crises hit. Our neighbors need help right now — not six months or a year from now. In my experience, even if government agencies were capable of helping some of the families we work with, a large number might not accept such support.
Trust in Charities
The only reason many parents trust Better Together with their children is because we are 100 percent privately funded. I once met a young mother named Samantha who was living in her car with three young kids. At first, she refused help from our program because she feared losing her children. But Samantha had a change of heart after learning we received no government funding and that our mission was to keep children out of foster care. She knew I had no agenda. I just wanted to help. Samantha finally accepted my help and allowed me to care for her three children for two weeks while she found a job and secure housing for her family.
Samantha is far from alone in her skepticism of government. In 2020, during the depths of the Covid-19 crisis, Edelman’s Trust Barometer found only 48 percent of Americans trusted government, which was actually a record high. We often forget that historically when families were in crisis, they turned to friends, relatives, and religious institutions. Government was the last resort.
Government is an important partner in tackling a range of social problems, but it can’t provide the depth of support offered by local charities. That takes compassion, friendship, and love. These groups invest the time and effort needed to engage with struggling and skeptical people and dig deep to discover the root causes of problems, such as family breakdown.
That’s a tall order for already overwhelmed government case workers. Our partners in Florida understand this reality. More than 60 percent of our referrals now come from the state’s Department of Children and Families and from law enforcement. The support and preventive services offered by groups like ours free the state agency to concentrate on the things it does best, such as responding to substantiated claims of child abuse and protecting children in danger of harm.
We can call on government programs to do better, but it is unproductive to call on them to do more. The pandemic has shown that in times of crisis, the speed and flexibility of local charities cannot be matched. The most effective solutions for the hardships in our communities are not in Washington — they are right in front of us.
This piece originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy
Megan Rose is the CEO of Better Together, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping children out of foster care by strengthening families through work and relational support. She’s also a 2020-21 Civil Society Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images