Issaquah considers new ways to fund human services

Everyday, thousands of people on the Eastside depend on the services of a myriad of small nonprofit agencies - church groups, public health workers, shelters, educators, counselors.

Everyday, thousands of people on the Eastside depend on the services of a myriad of small nonprofit agencies – church groups, public health workers, shelters, educators, counselors. Some of these are groups whose budgets are often measured in four figures rather than five, for whom a cut of a thousand dollars can mean the difference between help and no help for someone who desperately needs it. They are safe homes for the victims of domestic violence, in-home services for the disabled, therapists for children with mental illnesses, food and clothing for low-income families doing it tough.

In the past few years the changing economy, and the changing priorities of state and county governments, has meant seismic shifts in how these groups find the money to continue their vital work. In the past few years, King County has eliminated 85 percent of its general fund support for regional human services. The state, too, has cut its support. What that leaves is cities like Issaquah and Sammamish, and the human service providers themselves, to find new and creative ways to find the money to keep people in bad situations fed, clothed, educated and protected.

The reality of the situation is that while the demand for, and cost of, human services is expanding every year, government budgets are not.

The Eastside Human Services Forum (EHSF), of which the City of Issaquah is a member, believes human service agencies need to look beyond the current reliance on tax revenue and hand outs from cities. EHSF has formed the Eastside Social Sustainability Partnership (ESSP) to try and find a way to tap into a bigger bucket of money, and remove the uncertainty that comes with bi-annual applications for grant funding that may never come.

One of the ideas they hope to investigate is what may be gained through collaboration. By coming together to form a single agency, Eastside cities may have better access to state and federal grants. Similarly, a larger pool of money would reap a larger return on investment, and through astute leveraging may unlock matching fund opportunities.

Though collaboration is not a new idea in the nonprofit world, where the partnership hopes to break new ground is by developing an entrepreneurial mindset to the problem, and exploring ways in which these agencies can actually generate their own revenue.

Using traditional for profit models and practices to fund the activity of nonprofits is an idea made popular by former Microsoft vice-president turned philanthropist Scott Oki, and in recent years has seen a number of Seattle-area nonprofits develop their own revenue streams, including financial investing, charging for services, and marketing and selling products like coffee and bottled water.

“They’re really looking for something big,” said Issaquah’s Community Services Consultant Steve Gierke. “The sustainability partnership is looking for a big business of some kind that would really create something, more than bottled water.”

But if the City of Issaquah wants to see what fruit these ideas could bear, it will have to pay for it. At a total cost of $35,000, Issaquah’s share of funding the study would be $3,150. The $35,000 would pay for a consultant for about 350 hours to identify at least one key revenue strategy, and prepare a report for the partner cities.

And while in the scheme of city budgets that run into many millions of dollars that does not seem like a lot of money, in a world where sums of just a few hundred dollars makes an enormous difference there is some question whether this is a worthwhile investment.

The city’s Human Services Commission is now considering whether it will recommend Mayor Ava Frisinger authorize the expenditure. And while most commission members recognize the way the city supports groups like the Eastside Baby Corner, Meals on Wheels programs, and the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center needs to be improved, not all are convinced the the ESSP is the best way to do it.

Commissioner Leo Finnegan is concerned that the creation of a common agency would “add another layer of bureaucracy in there.”

Finnegan said through regionalization individual cities could lose contact with the unique, specific situations in their own communities.

“The control, and the knowledge of where the money should go is moving too far from the cities,” he said. “Each city has its own unique problems and challenges.”

Finnegan, the co-founder of Life Enrichment Options, a nonprofit serving young adults with disabilities, was skeptical that the ESSP has a grand vision with no concrete goals or focus. Fellow commissioner Bill Ramos was also concerned about spending money on a study when there were human service providers who desperately need it.

“I think there’s some other ways to do this without spending that kind of money,” he said. “That $35,000 has got to come from somewhere.”

The Human Services Commission has until September to pass their recommendation to Mayor Frisinger. If they are to agree to funding a portion of the Eastside Social Sustainability Partnership study, they will need some concrete assurances it will be money well spent.