I’ve been in the nonprofit world long enough to know that in the Des Moines metro there are hundreds of services and programs available for those in need. These services range drastically. From helping children with cancer to giving art opportunities to juvenile delinquents, it’s hard to keep it all straight.
For a long time, I’ve been in positions where referring people to resources is just part of what happens. Over time, I have made lists of various organizations, determining what they do, who they serve, etc. My “genius” solution was to create a hub of information where people can access services with key words. Programs change so regularly. Funding runs out. I gave up rather quickly.
Here’s an example of what’s happening in our community (and likely several other places). Sam is a low-income resident with three small children who needs his roof replaced, his sidewalk repaired and he could use some grab bars to move around safely. His wife recently died in an accident, so he’s left alone to parent. He finds out from his neighbor that there are six programs available in Des Moines that can potentially help, which is very encouraging! Sam calls Agency 1 and has to get a lot of different paperwork from the bank to prove his income and needs to mail them back and wait for a phone call response. Agency 2 says sorry Sam, we can’t help you because you don’t actually own your house and we don’t help contract buyers! Agency 3 says we need to do a house visit between 8:00-noon on weekdays to see if your repairs are something we can fix. Agency 4 says they only do home repairs at a specific event once a year and that is seven months away and the application process is very competitive. Agency 5 says Sam’s house is valued too high to make repairs even though he is barely making it financially. All of this work has led Sam to run around the metro to get answers that actually aren’t all that helpful. Agency 6 says, Sam! We have a program we just got funding for that can help you if your kids have asthma. One child does! Sam is able to get most of the repairs made by Agency 6 and Agency 1 promised to keep him on a wait list for the other repairs in 2017.
So, Sam has lost work days to do all the necessary paperwork and home visits and is threatening to be fired from his job. He can’t go before or after work to drop off papers because the agencies aren’t open and home visits are typically during 8:00-5:00 p.m. Sam got lucky because of his circumstances and funding that was available, but he had to go to six different agencies to get an answer. All the paperwork was different and required various attachments that are hard to access without Internet or a printer.
I get so frustrated. Why are six agencies doing extremely similar things? Why can’t there be a single organization who runs housing programs? It’s exhausting for me to keep up with. I can’t even imagine trying to understand services available as a Des Moines resident and then I think about newcomers from different countries. Wow.
Some nonprofits keep fighting for funding to keep mediocre programs alive. I know it’s harsh (and I’ve been a part of mediocre programs that I have helped launch by the way), but it would make so much sense for some organizations to fold or merge. How many friends do you have that are involved in five boards, multiple steering committees and other random leadership roles? People get stretched thin and they’re not able to be effective members of the board. I see it all the time. I can be that ineffective, overcommitted person and I don’t like it. If less nonprofits existed, I believe more effective committees and boards could fulfill the mission & beyond.
I’m a 20-something with a beginner’s lens. I don’t see everything the way a seasoned executive director does. My opinions are based on my experiences in life over the past few years. Please hear me out, I’m extremely proud of many, many nonprofits in this community. Some are killing it and meeting very real needs of Des Moines residents.
As someone who is passionate about system-level changes, I would love to see more partnerships, potential mergers, data sharing, passing off programs and working to serve the people. Instead of trying to “prove ourselves,” why don’t we take a deeper look at what is working in our community and take steps that are going to improve peoples’ quality of life. I love this city. I want the best for everyone and when I see things that bother me, I want to talk about them.
What are things to consider? What am I missing? Does anyone else feel similarly?