Connecting state and local government leaders
Oklahoma is on the cutting edge of a national trend bringing foundations, nonprofits and the Department of Human Services together to help residents in need.
Late last year, the Family Preservation Services division of NorthCare, an Oklahoma-based nonprofit, received $6 million three-year contracts from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. That was, of course, wonderful news to Kelli Hart, a NorthCare vice president. And then came the big surprise: Following the contract announcement, the state’s secretary of human services visited the NorthCare office, along with several members of his team.
“He actually came over and thanked us for being part of the process,” recalls Hart. “They came here and sat down and talked with us. We’ve had many contracts with the government and that’s something that has never happened before.”
Oklahoma is at the cutting edge of a national trend.
“We’re seeing greater alignment between government and philanthropy. There’s way more collaboration,” says Tracy Wareing Evans, president and CEO of the American Public Human Services Association. “We’re seeing this in county systems, but in the case of Oklahoma it’s at the state level.”
This effort has practical purposes that go far beyond simply fostering human interactions. Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services, led by director Justin Brown, is relying on newly expanded relationships with nonprofits and the philanthropic organizations that support them, to make sure communities can get the most out of the money that federal government sends their way.
“It’s a very exciting kind of innovation,” says Evans. “I don’t know of another place that has done it quite that way.”
Marnie Taylor has been president and CEO of the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits for 11 years and has also served on more than 30 nonprofit boards. “Beyond the names of the directors, I honestly couldn’t have told you if I knew a single name of anyone who worked at the Department of Human Services prior to Justin coming in,” she says. “There was always this disconnect between what went on at the department offices and what was really happening on the ground.”
The difference, she says, is that in the last two years, nonprofits, foundations and the department are partners working together to find the best solutions.
Though this transformation began to take place as soon as Brown came on board, one key has been the formation of a 24-member advisory committee made up of Oklahoma-based foundations, the United Way, the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits and other organizations that work in the human services field but would not be applying for funding. The task before the committee, which had its first meeting in February 2021, was to provide advice on how the state could most effectively build a strategy to spend approximately $100 million of federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families reserve funds that Oklahoma, like many other states, had amassed over many years.
Working with the advisory committee, the department decided to spend the reserve money on five initiatives. The first $27 million, focused on family stability, was awarded in December, with the second investment area to center around youth services. Each investment strategy will be bid out to nonprofits in staggered fashion over the next three years and each nonprofit contractor will have three years to spend the dollars.
Brown came to his position as director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services in June 2019 and then was appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt six months later as secretary overseeing the 33 agencies, boards and commissions that form Oklahoma’s Human Services Cabinet.
Coming from the private sector, Brown had a limited understanding of the intricacies of the TANF block grant at first, but he immediately discerned that hundreds of Oklahoma organizations had the same goals and purpose as his agency. As he puts it, “we’re aligned in serving people in need and lower-income communities. Why shouldn’t we work together to serve the community in greater ways?
“Our culture at the Department of Human Services is that we want insight,” he says. “We want input. We recognize that we cannot do this alone.”
One benefit of the advisory committee has been that quarterly discussions increased both government and foundation knowledge about the state’s many nonprofits and their goals and programs. In the past, Oklahoma observers say that the state’s human service nonprofits tended to be siloed in how they were funded.
Some received the vast majority of their support through government contracts, while many others were intimidated by the complexities of asking for government dollars and depended on private philanthropy. DHS requirements had been viewed as overly restrictive with multiple procedural barriers in place that made it difficult for many nonprofits to access TANF funds that could be used to provide services to low-income individuals.
Says Sarah Roberts, vice president of programs at the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, and a member of the advisory group: “They would not have dreamt of applying for funding. But Secretary Brown has been willing to listen and has brought them to the table.”
These days, DHS works with nonprofits to solve problems they encounter, sometimes by embedding a staff member to speed up processes and work through challenges. For example, the Oklahoma City Diversion Hub was having difficulty providing identification and driver’s license information to help women who were being released from jail to access Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. DHS placed a state agency employee at the nonprofit to help trouble-shoot problems resulting from the lack of identification and make sure that SNAP and other federal safety net benefits could be accessed more quickly—sometimes within a single day.
The spirit of collaboration was also evident in spring 2020 at the onset of the pandemic when it was clear that an economic downturn would result in devastating evictions and homelessness. While waiting for money from the federal CARES Act to arrive, a public-private partnership was formed to facilitate the use of philanthropic dollars to “bridge financial needs before public dollars kicked in,” explains Ginny Bass Carl, executive director of Community CARES Partners, which was set up to administer distribution of some of the federal dollars received during the pandemic.
“The bottom line is that DHS’s out-of-the-box approach, and mindset, and its willingness to have multiple seats at the table, is so much more pleasant and successful than the traditional way of doing things,” says Carl. “Clearly, breaking down silos and working together is in everyone’s best interest.”
Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.
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