An Impact Beyond Charity

by Stevie Zvereva

Contributing nearly half a billion dollars in economic output each year, Greater Peoria’s human services sector is, collectively, the region’s fifth-largest employer, comprising 2.4 percent of its total workforce. These groups have a combined budget of $150 million, two-thirds of which comes from outside of the area, notes Martha Herm, recently-retired executive director of The Center for Prevention of Abuse. “We’re bringing in $100 million a year to this community.” The remaining sum is raised locally through fundraisers and fees—a number “that doesn’t even begin to cover our costs to meet the demand,” she adds. “We’re all scrimping by, really.”

These numbers—the key findings of an economic impact study conducted by the Human Services Collaborative of Greater Peoria (HSCGP) last fall—didn’t come as a surprise, Herm says. “We’ve always tried to sell ourselves by the wonderful services we provide, but… [the study] puts an economic value to the sector, and we know that’s what the business community listens to.”

The numbers also dispute several common misconceptions, suggests Jim Runyon, executive vice president of Strategic Initiatives & Governmental Affairs at Easter Seals. “We had been picking up informally that we were takers and not givers—that there were too many of us, that we duplicated services,” he explains. “We knew it wasn’t true. The economic impact study allowed us to quantify that.”

A Novel Study
The study came about as a collaboration among Heart of Illinois United Way member agencies and the local affiliate of Illinois Partners for Human Service, a statewide advocacy group. Facing budget cuts in the wake of 2008’s economic collapse, both groups had separately been discussing ways to promote the value of the human services sector. Merging efforts, they formed a joint committee “to work together to better tell that story,” Runyon explains.

“[We thought,] how can we show how valuable we really are—and if we weren’t here, what a great [loss] there would be to the community?” says Herm. The committee approached the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce and Greater Peoria Economic Development Council to assist in the first in-depth, quantitative attempt to measure the economic impact of the local human services sector.

Based on data collected from 46 agencies, the study revealed that the surveyed organizations employ 2,567 workers and directly contribute more than $237 million to the regional economy. It then used a pair of models to break the residual impacts into two types: indirect—caused by business-to-business purchases, and induced—employee wages spent in the community. The results showed the local human services sector’s impact at 4,283 total jobs and more than $442 million in total output—considerable figures that underscore the groups’ niche in the local economy. For every dollar of funding the organizations receive, they return a total of $3.53 in net economic output to the region.

“We’ve known… for years that we are a vital part of the economy and that we are impactful in more ways than the obvious,” says George Clay, CEO of the W.D. Boyce Council, Boy Scouts of America. “When you make an investment in us, yes, it’s a philanthropic gift—but at the same time, it’s giving back in big ways.”

Business to Business
The goals of the Human Services Collaborative are three-fold: to confirm the participating agencies’ role as partners in a growing economy, as investors in human capital and as valuable contributors to a thriving community—building and sustaining the regional workforce and enhancing quality of place. Borrowing language from economic development groups, they set out to “speak in terms the business community would listen to,” Herm says. But the true bridge was the study’s results itself, Runyon adds.

“We’re a Six-Sigma organization just like Caterpillar, Saint Francis and many others,” he says, citing Easter Seals as an example. “We’re trying to move our decision-making away from just emotions or perceptions to really being data-driven… We can now give that hard data, which [business leaders] understand, appreciate and run their businesses around.”

Kim Cornwell, executive director of EP!C, says nonprofits are more like other businesses than not. “We all have financial audits that we have to do every year, just like any other business. We all are accredited or licensed… We all use best practices… But people just don’t see us that way. As soon as they know you’re a social service agency or a nonprofit, all of a sudden they just assume you’re not as efficient.” Over time, charities—rooted in the early days of Puritanism and giving through the church—had developed a reputation as “black holes”—bottomless pits for endless funding, she suggests.

economic impact

On the contrary, says Tricia Fox, executive director of The Center for Youth and Family Solutions (CYFS), nonprofits often need to be more efficient than for-profit businesses—just to stay afloat. She stresses that funding—whether state or federal, public or private, grant or donation—is all about accountability. Over the last decade and a half, Fox has seen measurement of that accountability grow, which is “a good thing,” she notes. “[It’s] required folks to be very careful about the types of services they take on, and it just makes everyone run more efficiently.”

Building a Stronger Workforce
As the HSCGP presents its findings to the business community, the group is also outlining how the sector enhances the local workforce. Herm offers one example, citing research showing that workers involved in abusive situations are tardier and take more absences from work. “If [The Center for Prevention of Abuse] can settle some of those problems,” she says, “they’re going to be better employees.

“They’ll be more productive at work if they know their autistic son is being taken care of at Easter Seals, or their adult daughter who is mentally challenged can work every day at Community Workshop & Training Center (CWTC),” Herm continues, “which means they can go to work instead of being relegated to stay at home.” In addition, the combined efforts of these agencies in areas like resume writing, GED preparation, reading development and work-appropriate dress also support local workforce needs.

“Keeping people employed is so critical for… our community’s economic health,” Fox notes. “Daycare centers and afterschool programs, programs that help seniors or provide mental health services—all those things remove barriers to work and help families remain in the workforce.”

“So, that’s what we want the business community to hear: there’s a trickle effect,” Herm explains. Human service organizations contribute to a stronger workforce and healthier community, which in turn, is vital to attracting and retaining Peoria’s talent.

“If people are choosing to stay… or come to a community, they’re looking at whether that’s where they want to stay to raise a family,” Fox explains. Prospective workers, she adds, will prioritize access to the programs their family needs, whether mental health services, elderly care or child care, to name a few. “When they look at Peoria, they are going to find those things here. They… don’t have to leave to [go to] Chicago.” Strengthening neighborhoods and family stability is an important function of the sector, she adds, on top of the critical services provided for the neediest and most traumatized individuals and families.

“[It] helps us recruit the people we want in this community,” Herm says. “And having the kinds of services we provide just makes this a good community.”


The Service Niche

The common misperception of overlap in area nonprofit services was a driving force behind the HSCGP’s decision to focus on public awareness, says Runyon. Last fall, the group ran an 11-week series of advertisements in the Journal Star, showcasing its participating members—part of the collaborative’s larger mission to redraw human service organizations as one unified safety net for the region.

“There used to be a time when folks wrote grants to support organizations,” Runyon explains. “Today, however, funding organizations are interested in funding specific programs inside organizations, he says, all with measurable outcomes. In some cases, this has allowed funders to support different organizations with similar, yet separate functions.

He offers an example of seemingly overlapping organizations in the area of serving individuals with disabilities: EP!C, CWTC, Advocates for Access and Tazewell County Resource Centers (TCRC). “[They] all work with adults with disabilities,” Runyon notes, “but they do it in different geographic areas and with different levels of disabilities.”

While EP!C works to enrich the lives of kids and adults with developmental disabilities in Peoria and Tazewell counties, CWTC serves a population over the age of 16 who has developmental disabilities, mental illness or physical disabilities and reside in Peoria, Fulton or Tazewell counties. TCRC benefits individuals with developmental disabilities and visual impairments who live and work in Tazewell County, while Advocates for Access, a group managed by and for people with disabilities, emphasizes training, referral and peer support services, and social advocacy, serving all four counties.

“We tend to specialize or offer different things,” says Cornwell. But people also have a choice, she suggests. “For instance, I have people that live with us [at EP!C], but go to CWTC to work, and vice versa… It just depends on the person’s needs.”

Runyon concurs. “None of us want only one choice for where we live,” he says, noting that while TCRC offers great housing options for Tazewell County residents, it’s important that’s not the only option. “The more variety we have, the greater the community, we feel,” adds Herm. “Why do we have 12 kinds of banks? Everybody offers something just a little bit different, and it’s location, location, location—you want services that are close to home.”

Another example of perceived overlap lies with elderly service providers, says Fox. The Center for Youth & Family Solutions offers a senior program that provides in-home mental health counseling to seniors suffering from depression, grief or loss. Referrals often come from The Center for Prevention of Abuse, she explains, and vice versa, complementing each other’s services. The two groups also cross-train their staff on signs of abuse and on mental health issues. “Both agencies are able to work together well and use the funding streams we have to provide a safety net for that population,” she notes.


Some members of the Human Services Collaborative of Greater Peoria

A Shared Voice
While the collaborative’s participating agencies had met regularly in the past, the meetings are different now, says Runyon. “Getting folks together to talk about collaboration reinforces collaboration… Now, it’s not a dirty word. We’re seeking it out.”

The twin pressures of finite resources and diminished public funding has required agencies to be creative and adaptive in this process. As board chairman of Illinois Partners for Human Service, Runyon oversees biannual organized visits by state legislators to central Illinois, where its members speak to public leaders with one voice to advance mutual goals—like addressing proposed state budget cuts. “It makes us think bigger than just ourselves individually,” suggests Runyon, “[and] how cuts impact the people we serve across all those different programs and services.”

If enacted, the budget cuts proposed by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner in March are likely to weaken efforts in the human service fields of healthcare, child care assistance, child protection services, adult protective care and beyond, which will have myriad trickle effects throughout the community.

“The governor said there’s not enough money for the rest of FY15,” says Runyon. “He’s said some non-essential grants will be canceled for the fourth quarter… and put in reserve to apply to other areas that are shortfalled.” This will have varying impacts, depending on the programs’ diversity of funding sources. Easter Seals’ Autism Program, for instance, may survive the $45,000 proposed cut through its contributed income and United Way and Peoria County grants, at least for the remainder of the fiscal year. “We’re always going to act first to protect core services,” he says. “We may limit hours, or limit the number of spots, rather than close them down or start laying off employees—that’ll be the last thing we do.”

But this program, like many others across the region—including CYFS’ transitional services for adolescents and Advocates for Access’ senior community integration program—are back on the chopping block next year. And so begins the real battle, which is expected to ensue for months. And while Rauner’s proposals are nothing new, Runyon adds, noting similar cuts by previous governors, “it’s a hell of a way to do business.” He sighs, describing the tremendous amount of time, energy and resources human service groups will have to spend to educate citizens on the impacts of the proposed budget. “Hopefully… [the cuts] will be mitigated to some extent, but [it’s] just such an inefficient way to do things.”

It’s all part of the political process, says Cornwell, which can often be mediated. The problem this year is that nothing will be finalized until August or September—long after most organizations’ July 1st budget deadline. “So, we’re going to have to go into the fiscal year just making the cuts.”

“We’re planning and advocating to make sure our legislators are well aware [of] what we bring to the community, but it’s scary,” suggests Jeannine McAllister, executive director of Advocates for Access. “Any budget cut—[since] we haven’t had an increase since 2003—is going to be very detrimental to our consumers.”

Building the Safety Net
The study’s results are not just enlightening local business, government and the general public—it’s also been informative for HSCGP members. “I think we all know what we contribute,” McAllister explains, “but when you put us together as a group and see those numbers… it’s very telling.” Clay, for one, was astounded by The Center for Prevention of Abuse’s ability to serve 5,000 people each year. As the only agency in the state to house domestic violence, sexual assault and adult protective services under one roof, The Center provides “a seamless way to keep people safe and move on with their lives,” Herm adds, “whether you’re two or 103, male or female, with any kind of abuse.”

“I am amazed to learn about some of the things they do. I didn’t know they served so many men, for example,” Clay admits. “And the number of kids housed there each year is mind-boggling.” Likewise, the fact that the Boy Scouts touch 100,000 families a year will likely surprise some people, he adds, noting the impact of its annual food drive, which helps stock local food pantries for the winter.

The collaborative is also driving new partnerships to reinforce the community safety net. “It is very important to have your peers… sitting around the table with you,” McAllister notes. “We get a lot of calls… where our consumers are in need of something, and if you don’t have the knowledge to connect them to the right resources… you’re not being as useful and effective as you can be. It’s good to know what other agencies are working on and how we can work together.”

“The best way to say it,” Herm adds, “is none of us can do everything for our clients.”

With spring turning to summer and talks in Springfield heating up, that message will be relayed in the Human Services Collaborative’s outreach efforts. As the coalition continues its mission to bolster the human services sector, it now has hard data to help corroborate its worth. iBi

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