The United Way of Douglas County is in the final stages of a public campaign to raise $1.7 million for its 2012 operating budget.
Technically, the organization is about $490,000 short of its goal, said Erika Dvorske, president and CEO of the organization. But Dvorske said she’s “cautiously optimistic” the campaign will meet its goal.
She said the Douglas County chapter receives significant transfers from United Way chapters in Topeka and Kansas City to account for Lawrence residents who work and donate in those communities but request that their donations be funneled to the Douglas County chapter. Those transfers aren’t made until February.
Contribution levels are nearly on pace with last year’s campaign, which fell about $100,000 short of its goal, Dvorske said. People interested in donating can contact the United Way directly at 843-6626.
The garbage bags here — a line of them stretching from one wall to another — aren’t for trash.
After all, busted bubbles create a mess, but they aren’t exactly trash.
That’s right, the housing bubble is not the only bubble that has burst in Lawrence. Here at the United Way Center for Human Services, an old nursing home building off Ridge Court in south Lawrence, there are signs of broken bubbles everywhere.
“People may not recognize it, but the 1990s were as much of a boom for social services as they were for real estate,” said Erika Dvorske, president and CEO of the United Way of Douglas County. “The grants were really flowing. We’ve definitely been going through our own contraction.”
In this garbage bag-laden office — the Lawrence office for ECKAN, the East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corporation — about 20 people a day seek help from the agency. When they arrive, they see the signs for themselves.
The nonprofit is set up to provide assistance for people in need, but since October the group has had no money to fund its emergency rent and utility assistance program. For even longer than that, the agency has had a shortage of employees to staff it. Shortly after the federal government began its stimulus efforts, the agency received enough federal funding to employ three case workers. Now the local office is down to one.
As anyone in this building can tell you, the stimulus dollars are gone and they aren’t coming back. That has been the latest pin to prick a bubble.
“We knew we would have adjustments to make, but they have been tough,” said Lillie Okwuone, the remaining case worker at the Lawrence office.
But that’s the way it goes these days. Lots of people are having to make adjustments. The trash bags prove that. The line of pudgy little trash sacks are for Christmas. Stuffed mainly with pants and shirts and other such practical gifts that would make any 5-year-old yawn, they’ll be given to Douglas County families in need.
“We’re on full-blown Santa duty right now,” Okwuone said among the bags and a pile of little, stuffed toys.
An unsettling year
During this season of giving, the Lawrence Journal-World decided to briefly check in on the industry that makes giving its business. Nineteen social service agencies have their local headquarters in the United Way Center for Human Services at 2518 Ridge Court.
Here a definite theme has emerged.
“This has probably been the most unsettling year we’ve ever had,” said Barb Bishop, the executive director of The Arc of Douglas County, a nonprofit that provides services to people with developmental disabilities. “We’ve had good years before and we’ve had bad years before, but this has been a year where we haven’t known where we’re going or where we’ll be when we get there.”
Imagine that. An economic downturn has created tough times for social service agencies. But here’s the twist. Social service agencies don’t spend a lot of time pointing at the economy these days. Yes, their clients still have problems finding jobs and the downturn has had an effect on giving. But this economic saga has been going on for more than three years, and in a way it has become old hat.
Today, the talk in the halls is more likely to be about government and how it is “reinventing” itself. Whether it be the end of the federal stimulus dollars, which was expected, or the near closing of the Lawrence SRS office, which was not, it seems government has set the stage for a shake-up in the social services industry.
“It is a political conversation that is going on across the country,” Dvorske said. “What is the responsibility of government in terms of providing services; what is the responsibility for charities and nonprofits? The lines do become blurred.”
But some say it hasn’t been much of a conversation in Kansas. It should come as no surprise that questions about Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s vision for social services get raised in this building.
“The new administration has had a very difficult time understanding that listening is part of its job,” Bishop said. “There have been a lot of pronouncements and then a while later a few ‘whoops, never mind’ moments.
“That has added to the unsettled feeling.”
A turning point
Dvorske, who took over the top spot at the local United Way in 2008 after holding a United Way position in Wyandotte County, understands the big picture. The economy is putting pressure on government just like everything else.
But until recently, social service agencies clung to a bit of certainty when it came to their government partners.
“We understand that everybody has to balance their budgets,” Dvorske said. “But there are also certain things that government just can’t stop doing. You can’t stop maintaining the jail, for example.”
Until this summer, funding an SRS office in the fifth-largest county in the state was assumed to be on that list. And then it wasn’t. State officials announced it June they would close the Lawrence office for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
“We were completely unprepared for that,” Dvorske said.
She said leaders of local social service agencies literally gathered in a room and rested their heads in their hands trying to figure out how they were going to connect their clients with vital SRS services if the nearest offices were in Topeka or Johnson County.
Eventually, it didn’t come to that. An unusual offer by the city and the county to use local tax dollars to pay the state $450,000 in funding to keep the office open caused the Brownback administration to reconsider its decision. Now it looks like the payment won’t be needed at all because Brownback has indicated he’ll recommend the office be funded in next year’s budget.
“But I think that really was kind of a turning point for us,” Dvorske said.
She said the potential closure was the type of crisis point that drives home the idea that social service agencies are going to have to adapt to new times. She said it is no coincidence that she spends as much or more time talking about the idea of “innovation and collaboration” as she does fundraising.
She said that social service providers have to be even more willing to work together and also to try new models that rely less on traditional fundraising and government support. That’s beginning to show up in the process the local United Way uses to allocate funding to its member agencies. All member agencies now must show how they’re helping to accomplish at least one of three goals related to education, health and self-sufficiency. The United Way board will begin using that new process when it awards funding in March.
“I think we really are seeing a new way of operating in the nonprofit world,” Dvorske said.
The next bubble?
When you ask the leaders inside this building what their hopes are for 2012, you get answers as complex as details related to proposed changes in managed care to as simple as this:
“We hope to stay in business,” said Elena Ivanov, executive director of the Douglas County AIDS Project. “We don’t want to follow the Planned Parenthood example.”
At one point in 2011, the Douglas County AIDS Project thought it was going to lose about 50 percent of its funding from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, but late this year it was notified the funding was still intact.
Social service agencies of all sorts will want to keep an eye on 2012. The funding challenges at the federal and state level are fairly well-known, but the key question of the year may be whether more severe challenges emerge on the local level.
Douglas County provides about $4.9 million in direct funding to a host of social service agencies, and the city of Lawrence provides about $1.1 million in funding.
But 2012 is expected to be unlike any other year in recent memory for local governments. Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug has said he expects the county’s overall tax base to decline for the first time in memory — probably by 3 percent or 4 percent — because of a widespread decline in home values.
“There really will be questions about priorities for elected officials in local government this year,” Weinaug said. “There will be questions about how they balance the need to sustain some of these services versus how high they are willing to increase the mill levy.”
That’s not exactly a prescription for more stability. But that’s no matter to Dvorske. She insists she’s confident and that in the end local social service providers will figure out the right way forward.
“You know, I’m a silver-lining type of gal,” Dvorske said. “I couldn’t be in this business any other way.”