NEW YORK, Jan. 18, 2013 /PRNewswire/ -- At a daylong summit convened by the Human Services Council of New York (HSC) on Monday, January 14, top leaders and experts in the nonprofit sector, government, philanthropy, academia, and the media shared candid views about how to overcome roadblocks and improve the effectiveness of nonprofits that deliver critical services to many millions of New York state and city residents.
The first-ever public conversation of its kind among stakeholders and leaders from diverse sectors, "Doubling Down: How Recommitting to the Nonprofit Sector Can Achieve Real Change in Communities", hosted by Baruch College's School of Public Affairs, drew more than 170 attendees to a series of panel discussions featuring nonprofit executives, elected officials, and distinguished experts in the field, including Gordon Campbell, Professor at NYU's Wagner School of Public Service and former CEO of United Way of NYC; New York City Council Member Gale A. Brewer; New York Times columnist Michael Powell; Linda I. Gibbs, NYC Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services; Gladys Carrion, Commissioner, NYS Office of Children and Family Services; Joseph Bruno, Commissioner, NYC Office of Emergency Management; executives at such well-known nonprofit organizations and foundations as Catholic Charities, the UJA-Federation, the Robin Hood Foundation, and many others. Robert Egger, founder of the nonprofit advocacy organization CForward, delivered the keynote address.
The role of nonprofit service providers is misunderstood by the public and often undervalued by elected officials, said many at the summit, despite the huge impact that nonprofits have on New York's economy and workforce - there are 1.2 million nonprofit employees in New York State, and nonprofits are the second largest employer in New York City, delivering $4 billion worth of contracted services. They are often considered a "nice to have" instead of a "need to have".
"The nonprofit sector's contributions to our economy, society, and overall quality of life are too often taken for granted. The result is divestment in the sector, which undermines the ability of nonprofits to provide the level and quality of services needed to have a real, meaningful, lasting impact in communities," said Allison Sesso, deputy executive director of HSC. "We convened the 'Doubling Down' summit to spark a game-changing conversation that can help us rethink long-term approaches to improve conditions for everyone who depends on human services, including children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor."
"More than 2.6 million New Yorkers live in poverty, including 866,000 children," said HSC Executive Director Michael Stoller in his opening remarks. "Homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Millions of people throughout the city and state are food insecure. We are here today because we want these numbers to radically decrease. We need political candidates and elected officials to have a platform and plan of action that addresses these issues and supports the work of nonprofit human services, just as they do with education or small businesses."
Nonprofit leaders at the summit said they struggle to compete with better-funded special-interest groups and openly admitted that political backlash for speaking out against problematic policies - and underfunded programs that set them up for failure - prevents nonprofits from voicing concerns. There was general consensus that nonprofits need to have the courage to take more political risks to achieve much-needed policy changes.
"We accept the bad terms of these contracts, and we don't act like a unified sector," said Nancy Wackstein, Executive Director of United Neighborhood Houses of New York. "All of us need to say, no, we're not going to accept this contract because we know we're going to fail." Instead, she said, if one group declines there are plenty of others lining up to accept the bad terms.
Carol Kellermann, President of the Citizens Budget Commission, stressed that the nonprofit sector needs to do a better job of marketing itself to show how it helps solve societal problems. "'Nonprofit' is just a tax status," she said. "It doesn't describe what you do to help people get out of need." It doesn't help that media outlets rarely cover the sector and focus mainly on scandals when they do, many said.
"If Hurricane Sandy proved one thing, it's that those neighborhoods with experienced and stable nonprofit organizations who knew their communities well were the neighborhoods whose residents did better and whose recovery happened faster," said Wackstein. "The essential nature of nonprofits as the true 'first responders' has never been clearer than it was during and after Sandy." That's the story people need to hear so they understand that nonprofits help everyone, not only the most needy, the panelists said.
Many participants stressed that nonprofits need to unify and build coalitions for collective political action and advocacy - including the possibility of forming a PAC. With mayoral and City Council elections coming up, nonprofits must get on the radar of candidates and new leaders to educate them about the sector's economic impact and its value for constituents in such areas as workforce development and housing assistance.
In his keynote address, Egger said that not one of the candidates in the 2012 presidential election talked about the role of nonprofits in the nation's economic recovery: "Our candidates should be fighting for your vote. They need to prove they understand that for-profits and nonprofits are equally essential to any economic recovery plan. If they don't, I wouldn't vote for them to be dog-catcher." He called on the nonprofit sector to harness its tremendous collective power and encourage its many thousands of employees to use social media to deliver this call to action to candidates and elected officials.
For more on the summit, follow HSC on Twitter at @HSC_NY, #DoubleDown, or visit www.humanservicescouncil.org.
SOURCE Human Services Council of New York