Nonprofit agencies are expected to serve the public good, be mission-driven and operate like a business. We nonprofits need to be compassionate, yet focused on obtaining successful outcomes. To end homelessness, the direction is clear: Move the homeless into housing quickly and provide ongoing support services. However, emergency services are still needed for homeless individuals—a meal when someone is hungry, warm clothes and a bed during cold winter months.
There is not one answer for addressing homelessness. A multitude of services are required to solve the immediate needs of the homeless population while planning for long-term support and housing solutions.
In the current economy, nonprofit agencies are seeking creative ways to continue providing, and in some cases expanding, services to needy populations. Homeless service providers are collaborating with their peer “competitors” to create one-stop service centers. Going a few steps further, a few nonprofit agencies have merged to reduce overhead and consolidate programming.
One recent high-profile merger was announced last spring between InnVision and Shelter Network of San Mateo County. Christine Burroughs, long-time CEO of InnVision, was retiring. She, along with her board of directors, decided that instead of searching for a new CEO the nonprofit would pursue a merger.
Burroughs operated InnVision from her heart more than anything, and she realized that InnVision would benefit from a leader with solid business acumen. After much searching and deliberation, Shelter Network in San Mateo County was found to be the perfect fit. They provided similar services for homeless individuals and families, and they had a dynamic and business-savvy CEO who is well-respected. The new organization, InnVision Shelter Network, was officially announced on July 1, 2012.
As InnVision Shelter Network staff reviewed services and collaborations, some hard decisions needed to be made due to drastic cuts in government funding. Using what it had learned during their merger, the organization made long-term solutions to solving homelessness a priority.
To help reduce costs and better align goals, administrators made the tough decision to end collaboration with Loaves and Fishes, a nonprofit that provides meals to the homeless.
Several years ago, when Loaves and Fishes was scouting a new home base, the nonprofit found a perfect fit with InnVision’s Montgomery Street Inn. The Montgomery Street Inn provides shelter for the homeless and Loaves and Fishes provides meals. At the time it was a win-win for both organizations. When circumstances and priorities shifted, InnVision Shelter Network made the decision to ask Loaves and Fishes to find a new location.
Understandably, the CEO of Loaves and Fishes did not embrace the decision. I don’t really know what was said between the two CEOs. Unfortunately, we are now watching the issue play out in the media and it doesn’t serve any of us well. As a nonprofit CEO, I worry that the public will get the wrong impression and think that nonprofits do not work well together. We do work together, but sometimes we have different goals.
Thankfully, Goodwill has responded to the request for space from Loaves and Fishes and offered them their 7th Street location. This could be the beginning of a terrific new collaboration, because Goodwill provides job training to many low-income people who, until they are employed, need a meal.
During my tenure at Bill Wilson Center, I have overseen the merger of three nonprofit organizations. I know firsthand that it is not an easy task. We may have hoped to see a smooth transition with the relocation of Loaves and Fishes; however, I feel it’s important to give InnVision Shelter Network some time to adapt and become a single organization with a changed culture. I am confident that the new InnVision Shelter Network will be a leader in helping end homelessness in our community.
Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.