Why They Last: The Historic and Contemporary Strengths of the Settlement House Model

Settlement houses have existed in America since 1886, representing one of the oldest and most sustainable models for providing a comprehensive community based range of social, educational and cultural services in cities across the country.

As we try to account for this longevity, we ask what is it that makes for this success over time and this unique ability to transcend and flourish irrespective of the dramatic shifts in political movements, economic upheavals, major societal challenges, and dramatic historic events?

We would argue that there are two essential themes within this story, one rooted in the mission and values of the settlement house movement and the other rooted in the business paradigm, both of which remain strong, adaptive and viable. These themes have co-existed to enable settlement houses not only to survive but also to play a critical role in their communities over generations.

Examining settlement houses is not an exercise in nostalgia. In the United States we have witnessed the rise, and almost inevitable fall, of government sponsored attempts to work within or to shape communities. Lessons learned from the War on Poverty, from the attempt to create Model Cities, from the more recent high expectations of Promise Neighborhoods, and other such high-end top-down concepts, have taught us that successful community building is an organic process. In the truest sense of “conservative” thinking, institutions evolve over time, growing and learning and influencing. Settlement houses are not created whole, from scratch. They grow from the human and physical communities where they are nurtured.

We do not present this as an historic overview, nor do we attempt to provide a definitive description of what in fact constitutes a settlement house. We also recognize that each of the factors described below is not unique to settlement houses, nor is the settlement house the only successful historic social support model which still flourishes in this country. Our focus is on the “gestalt” which frames the movement, valuable for both its historic and contemporary strengths. These factors have allowed and reinforced continuity as well as critical adaptation to change.

Settlement Houses Are Private Institutions

Even though they may now rely heavily on public financing and support and can sometimes be seen as just an extension of government, settlement houses are firmly rooted in the non-profit private sector. They are not government agencies. They have been created by individuals, or groups, who believed that their creation would serve some important social or community purpose.

Each of the characteristics described below originates with that fundamental premise: a settlement house has a purpose driven by private motivations and beliefs, often related to a local problem or cause. As such, settlement houses are able to be reasonably immune from, or less vulnerable to, the vicissitudes of government sponsorship and control. Obviously, this factor alone does not make settlements unique, but it does distinguish them from the many attempts by government over the years to try and create comprehensive approaches to community building or social services. Historically, almost all of these have fallen short or have failed for various reasons in achieving their intended goals.

The settlement movement has, at different times, defined the evolving progressive policies of our country, and at other times been declared a relic of the past, no longer suited to the complexities of contemporary issues. But facts are facts. There may be fewer settlements in New York City today than in 1920, but their scale and scope and impact far exceed any point in the past. In 2017 in NYC there were 38 members in the United Neighborhood Houses federation, with 670 different program sites, running programs for more than 750,000 people, employing almost 14,000 staff, using 13,000 volunteers and with an aggregate budget of $935 million. Settlements have survived and flourished for the reasons described in this essay, with the first operating principle being that they are “private” institutions, fully responsive and adaptable to the changing political, social, and demographic landscape.

Therefore, settlement houses are somewhat insulated from inevitable shifting policy perspectives or political agendas about how to define or address pressing issues. Settlements have been relatively free to make choices as to their mission, structure, operational and programmatic activities. They are, when they choose to be, independent of political influence and positioning. They can see things on a long term clock, applying a historian’s yardstick to their work, which is essential when attempting to make lasting change. They can, when necessary, take on the powers that be and, as the saying goes, speak truth to power and even occasionally bite the hands that feed them. Of course, all these characteristics are constrained by the extent to which they operate on government funds, or are influenced by their governing Boards of Directors, so the extent of freedom is perhaps exaggerated and never as complete as one would wish. But freedom exists nonetheless.

Diversification of Funding Streams

As with virtually all non-profits with long histories, settlements initially operated solely on the contributions of private dollars from wealthy individuals. The dominant model for at least the past 75 years, however, has been what some of us have referred to as a balanced economy or portfolio. This diversification or balance, comes on two dimensions.

First, the major revenue categories can include some or all of the following: government contractual funding, fees for services (originating from government funding or private sources), investment income, rental income, private or corporate or foundation grants or gifts, contributions from individuals, endowment income, and earned income. There are cases where government revenue so dominates the financial model that the advantages of independence and freedom associated with being a non-profit look blurred, but to survive as a settlement house, we believe a balance over time must be established among these sources.

The second dimension is that within each of these revenue categories, there is diversification of sources. For example, describing a settlement as receiving government funding is insufficient. Depending on the range of programs provided (see below), there is likely to be a plethora of contracts from government agencies at all levels (Federal, State and local). By definition, settlements are multi-purpose organizations, so by definition they receive money from varied sources. The same concept applies to foundation grants and major gifts as well as the types of fees or earned income generated.

Looking at an agency’s audit statement does not answer all the basic income questions and no mandatory fiscal reporting mechanisms (e.g. A133, 990) can tell the whole story.

This balanced portfolio principle is critical when we move to the next issues, and is key to preserving the integrity of the settlement model over time. Though not a guarantee for survival, diversification increases the odds of withstanding changes in the fiscal environment and in being able to weather almost any storm. As settlement leadership has discovered, the fiscal balancing process is both an annual and multi-year goal, and certainly one that is routinely affected by many external factors outside their control. But are the attributes of being private and having diversified funding sufficient to make a successful organization? Not yet, and not quite.

The debate over what defines a settlement house seems to be never-ending. This was as true in the late 19th century as it is today. Even the name or branding has been subject to criticism. In New York City, the sign on the door of such institutions might read neighborhood center or association, guild or community development corporation, or even the name of a person or street. But at the very least, there is a core operational definition which enables an organization to be part of the “settlement house tradition.” There must be a set of programs which range across age groups, populations, economic and social strata, and any other critical demographic characteristics which are reflective of the communities being served. A settlement cannot be designed for a single program or purpose or population; it cannot be solely reliant on one funding stream. Is there a typical rigidly enforced portfolio of programs? No. Some combination of pre-school, after school, older adults, counseling and mental health, cultural arts, recreation, literacy, youth and adult employment, housing, supportive services, health services…the list can and does go on…must be present. Over time, the list of programs has grown, in many ways reflecting the long history, and in other ways reflecting expansion to address emerging issues. In all cases, the financial statements of today are far removed from what they would have been 100 years ago. But while the operational values and principles have remained constant, the business practices have evolved.

Fluid, Integrative, and Comprehensive Programs

The most commonly understood characteristic of the settlement house model is that each organization runs a range of programs across age and income groups, activity areas, and often at various locations, addressing many of the needs and issues challenging any community.

In most communities, this also explicitly means that all ethnic and racial groups are included in the mix. They are, simply stated, as comprehensive as they can be. No two settlements run the same set of programs and services over time, and some specialize in one or more categories, but they all are defined as multi-service. This is not just an important component of the mission statement but also as part of the business model, because it is inseparably linked to the issue described above, diversification in funding sources.

The programmatic theory is simple. Over time, members of a family, people living in a community, will participate in more than one program conducted by a settlement house, sometimes sequentially, sometimes simultaneously. Equally important, neighbors will see the local settlement as providing a range of non-stigmatized programs in an accessible, open, welcoming manner, reducing the challenges faced by too many people who have trouble navigating our public systems. When settlements have tested this proposition with more refined data analysis (not an easy task even with advanced technology!), the theory of multi-generational use is verified.

In response to changing community needs, the availability of funds, or changing political or social priorities, settlements can sustain their core operational and value principles and still evolve and adapt. In well-run settlement houses, however, running a comprehensive set of programs is not considered to be sufficient. There needs also to be integrative and fluid forces which tie these programs together, facilitating easy access to the organization as a whole through any of its component parts and reinforcing movement of participants across programs.

At any given moment in time, or over time, individuals or families could and do use various programs, interacting with the settlement in multiple and sometimes unpredictable ways. The best programs are not staged in isolated boxes….or spaces. Programs are designed to bind the community and its members together. Why is this a business proposition as well as an institutional value? Because settlements make their case and build their longitudinal stability on the notion of breaking down categorical interpretations of complex social issues and interventions. The goal, the underlying theme, is service integration for consumers and participants and neighbors.

Ownership or Control of Real Estate

We do not know of any readily available hard data regarding how many settlements own or control some or most or all of their real estate (program and administrative sites), but anecdotal information reinforces the proposition that control of space (in one way or another) is central to sustaining continuity, integration and flexibility of operations on a geographic basis. Settlements are essentially “place based institutions,” fully embedded in the communities they serve. Nothing accomplishes this mission better than physical presence and identification. Certainly this is the case in the New York City settlement system.

The first generation of settlements still frequently own their original buildings from the late 19th or early 20th centuries (many now landmarked), but settlements have evolved in this arena as well. Public Housing Authority facilities, schools, rental properties, storefronts, residential sites, camps, and parks now comprise the eclectic range of properties where settlements operate programs. While owning or controlling properties creates burdens, it also enables settlements to be less dependent on fluctuations in sale or rental markets, to be less affected by uncontrollable leases which frequently extend beyond government or program contract terms and assured revenue sources, and to be less subject to the difficulties of having to share space with other organizations.

The place-based concept applies not just to program uses, but to administrative functions as well. Having such space and physical presence reinforces the cultural and physical neighborhood identity of a settlement, which is key both to the value system and business structures on which it is based.

Almost every settlement house in New York actually has multiple locations, a natural phenomenon associated with expanded budgets, program reach, and responsiveness to local needs. This expansion is still founded on the place-based principle, with multiple communities/places being served by a particular organization. What makes this model of growth viable and sustainable is that the “business” of keeping a settlement house financially secure is separate from the realities of how neighbors see a settlement in their specific communities. To use the example of two of the oldest NYC settlement houses, University Settlement had three program sites in 1988, and 31 in 2017. Henry Street Settlement began with some row houses on the street which gave the organization its name, but now has 43 sites.

Boards of Directors

Non-profit organizations are required to have Boards of Directors with certain defined responsibilities and a wide array of expectations. Again, the tradition of how settlements utilize their Boards is a reinforcement of both the business and mission goals.

Two critical features are generally emphasized: generate resources and relationships for the organization; and represent the communities in which the settlements are located and who they serve. Balancing these two can actually be quite challenging, and oftentimes one or the other is (overly) emphasized.

Settlements need private dollars, and having reasonably wealthy Board members is a key component of the balanced financial portfolio construct. In addition, settlements also frequently need political and/or social influence to survive in a competitive environment. Legitimacy in the community is also critical, hence the need to have appropriate representation. Combined, these attributes tend to create stability over time to the mission. There is history carried through the longitudinal investment made by Boards of Directors.

Board governance is a subject which seems to be a constantly moving target, subject to the shifting norms of inclusion and diversity and the need for major donors. But if this essay is correct in its assumptions, then Boards have played a major essential role in sustainability and continuity even if membership characteristics vary over time and place. The point to be made here, though possibly unpopular, is that settlements (and other non-profits) need to be clear as to Board expectations and outcomes. Is it a “community” board, representative of those being served? Is it supposed to generate huge resources? Is it made up of political leaders? These are not mutually exclusive defining variables, but very few of us have been fortunate or talented enough to construct exactly the right Board for all the needs of an organization.

But two challenges are worth noting. First, as the argument for diversity of Board membership increases, as it should, the balance between Board characteristics (money, power, skills, representation of populations served) can become more difficult to achieve. Second, an increasing number of settlement type organizations originated in the community development or housing development movements. They have were founded with by-laws that require their Boards to have representatives from constituents of the organization. But it is clear in any scenario that the longitudinal value of having a committed and engaged Board is key to the success of the model.

Staff Longevity and Long Term Relationships

There is a belief, perhaps an assumption, that people remain working at settlements for longer periods of time than in many other human service agency settings. Settlement life has been described as a “calling,” or being part of a “family.” This is counter to the growing 21st century trend of a more transient labor force, willing to move after only a few years in any one place. We refer to this as “settlement years,” mimicking the comparison with “dog years.” True or not, myth or reality, this commitment is a powerful force in promoting stability over time. It also reinforces the notion that settlements facilitate and allow employees to move up through the ranks, gaining and utilizing new skills.

Do you see yourself as a “stayer” or a “goer?” What is an expected or appropriate length of tenure when you accept a position at a settlement house? No topic comes up more among students today than the concept of longevity and commitment at work. Is it possible that a basic tenet of settlement life may be over i.e. staying at one place or within the settlement house community of organizations (even with changes in job status) over years if not decades? It is important to analyze current trends and data to understand if this aspect of the settlement house model will survive.

Why do we think this is critical? Because almost all theories of change (within an organization, within a community, within larger social contexts) require a longitudinal commitment among staff and the capacity to grow and be invested in the institution and one another. Success in this work is about relationships, not just with participants, but also with colleagues. And success in relationships is about commitment over time.

In addition, any settlement with a robust roster of programs is also likely to employ personnel ranging from the unskilled and minimally educated to highly skilled with advanced degrees. This has always been the case. We see such a diversified staffing pattern as essential in doing the work which needs to be done. A diversified workforce enriches the perspective of employees and strengthens the organization itself.


It is not sufficient for a settlement house to simply operate quality programs; it must take risks, be inventive, help to change the world, and advocate for and with its constituents and community. Advocacy is an integral component of the settlement tradition, built in from the start by Toynbee Hall in London in 1884 and University Settlement in New York City in 1886. What does it mean to be an organization that has advocacy as a core part of its mission? to believe in advocacy as a guiding principle?

A local AIDS nursing facility sold to a private developer to turn into luxury condos. A City re-zoning which will result in low-income residential and commercial displacement. A community’s opposition to any kind of supportive housing program or a proposed homeless shelter. Fear that young immigrants will be deported. High youth unemployment in the community. Government cutbacks in critical program funding. The list is endless. But all are examples of emerging public policies we know will be detrimental to those served by settlement houses. Settlement houses have to fight on behalf of these issues, even if not explicitly paid to do so. And sometimes we even have to fight for the “business” concerns of organizational sustainability, such as insufficient indirect funds in our contracts, dealing with unfunded mandates, and inexplicable regulations hindering our ability to do the work we are supposed to be doing.

We believe a settlement house must have an implicit and explicit cultural orientation as a force for advocacy in the communities it serves. Every program and every person within the organization must be helped to figure out an advocacy role in addition to the important direct service work required of programs and the organization as a whole. A settlement should choose one or more areas in which it wants to be seen as a leading advocacy player while also deciding when to play the role of collaborator or partner or co-sponsor. We are asserting that a robust settlement movement requires that our organizations be part of something larger than ourselves.

In sum, the historic longevity and contemporary effectiveness of most settlement houses is correlated with the factors we have described above. When one or more of these essential factors are missing, the settlement house is presented with real risks to its survival. While we have based our discussion on knowledge rooted in our New York City experiences, we believe these factors must be substantially present in other settlement houses across the United States and the world in order to allow them to thrive.

Guest blog contributed by:

Nancy Wackstein, MSW
Director, Community Engagement and Partnerships
Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service
Former Executive Director, United Neighborhood Houses of New York (2002-2015)

Michael Zisser, PhD
Adjunct Faculty
Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service
Former CEO, University Settlement and The Door (1988 -2016)

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Participatory Budgeting: Power to the People


Recently proposed federal funding cuts pose grave risks to communities across the state. One of those risks is the financial starvation of the nonprofit human services organizations that serve New Yorkers of all backgrounds and make our communities safer, healthier, and more just. This threat has left many feeling anxious or even hopeless. A new sign of hope may be in sight, however, with the rise of participatory budgeting in several cities across the nation. New York City’s seventh participatory budgeting cycle is currently underway.

Through the democratic process of participatory budgeting (PB), real power is given to ordinary people. This empowering program gives members of a community the opportunity to decide how part of a public budget will be spent. Giving community members the power to make spending decisions enables better budgeting made because these individuals know firsthand the needs of their communities. Since first starting in Brazil in 1989, PB has been implemented in 1,500 cities across the world. Within the United States, cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York City have taken part in this “new way of governing.”

In New York City’s PB program, Participatory Budgeting New York City (PBNYC), participating Council Members set aside at least $1 million from their budget for their districts to use. The funds provided to community members are capital funds, which means they can be used only to improve the physical infrastructure of city-owned property, such as schools, parks, public housing, and other public spaces. Some of these spaces house human service programs.

The first step of the process involves meetings in which eligible participants discuss local needs. Then with the help of experts, participants design project proposals that meet the needs addressed in prior meetings. After proposals are finalized, the public is given the chance to vote and choose five of their favorite projects. Once the votes are tallied up, the winning projects are announced and funds are allocated until they run out. In order to ensure that the participants are given enough time and the appropriate resources to make informed decisions, PBNYC was designed as a year-long process. Constituents of participating Council Members can even vote online.

Since starting in 2011, PBNYC has experienced significant growth and popularity within the City of New York. When the program first started, only four City Council districts were involved. In Cycle 6 (2016-2017), a total of 31 Council districts participated. In these districts, $40 million in capital funds were allocated to projects that improved communities. With 102,800 New Yorkers voting, PBNYC Cycle 6 saw an increase of 45 percent in voter turnout since the previous cycle.

Within New York City, an increased use of PB provides hope for the troubled nonprofit human services sector. In past PB cycles, nonprofit human services organizations that run programs on publicly owned property have received PB funds to improve their facilities. Organizations including Riverstone Senior Center, Children’s Aid (formerly Children’s Aid Society), Carter Burden Network, and Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services have all received funds for capital projects.

In addition, by encouraging the participation of community members in PBNYC, the process can draw attention to the needs of communities and create a new source of funding for much-needed services. HSC member The Fortune Society was honored by the Participatory Budgeting Project in 2016 for its work engaging formerly incarcerated individuals in PB.

Outside of New York City, the use and growth of PB throughout the country also provides a glimmer of hope. The most uplifting feature of this innovative process is its power to give a voice to every individual in the community. Regardless of legal status, age, or experience, almost anyone can participate in all of the different steps of PB. Although PB places an age limit for participants (PBNYC requires a participant to be at least 14 years old), it still provides those younger than 18 with an opportunity to be exposed to a crucial part of government and encourages them to speak up and make an impact within their communities. Most importantly, PB supports the American political system by trusting and giving power to the people. With greater emphasis on PB throughout the country, Americans will be empowered to make a difference by working together to improve parts of their communities that matter most to them.

For more information about PBNYC, visit https://council.nyc.gov/pb/.

–Esther Davila, Policy Intern



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Project Update: Disaster Preparedness

As the Nation Focuses on the Response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas…

…Preparation for Disasters Progresses in NYC’s Human Services Sector

HSC stands in sympathy with those who are suffering the effects of Hurricane Harvey as well as the multiple human services organizations that are attending to them.

For many New Yorkers, this event stirs up sharp recollections of Hurricane Sandy and serves as a reminder that, regrettably, the City could be victim to another such disaster.

Over the years since Hurricane Sandy, HSC has been partnering with many organizations from the human services and public sector toward ensuring that human services organizations are prepared to play pivotal roles in the event of a disaster. A number of recent developments give us cause for optimism that the sector’s preparedness for disaster is improving, and will continue to gain strength:

Mayoral Taskforce

Following the passage of City legislation introduced by Councilmember Mark Treyger, whose district experienced first-hand the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy, the Mayoral Administration established the Hurricane Sandy Houses of Worship and Charitable Organizations Recovery Taskforce to review the experiences of community- and faith-based organizations in the response to Hurricane Sandy and recommend strategies designed to lead to improved performances in dealing with future disasters.  Chaired by Allison Sesso, HSC’s Executive Director, the group produced a comprehensive report that sets forth numerous plans – such as enhancing inter-sector coordination and communications, better clarifying roles and responsibilities, and ensuring that participating organizations are properly resourced – that offer the promise of efficient systems and highly constructive partnerships going forward.  Along with many of our colleagues in the human services sector, HSC will be conferring with City government colleagues toward implementing the report’s recommendations.

Publication of HSC’s Human Services Disaster Work “Framework”

With major input from members of HSC’s Disaster Readiness and Resilience Workgroup, comprised of more than 25 leaders from disaster relief and human services organizations throughout NYC, HSC has developed and recently published the NYC Human Services Sector Framework for Serving New Yorkers after Major Disaster, a thorough guide to engaging in disaster work for human services organizations focused on such matters as integrating services, communications systems, the unique dynamics of the NYC landscape, and coordinating with government.  HSC will be disseminating the document in a variety of ways and making use of it as a basis for collaborative planning as well for supporting the efforts of organizations to develop individualized plans.

Upcoming Training – Save The Date 

HSC is partnering with colleagues from NYC Department of Health and Mental Health, NYC Emergency Management, and the Mayor’s Office on Recovery and Resilience to produce a training session designed to help human services leaders better understand changes to their command structure post-disaster and to set the stage for ongoing joint planning between the human service sector and City government. Taking place at HSC on October 26 from 9:00 am – 12:00 pm, the event will involve interactive discussions as well as a facilitated discussion about responding to a potential public health disaster.

Of course, we would all much prefer not to contemplate the specter of disasters, and at HSC we direct the majority of our efforts toward contributing to a healthy and equitable society.  At the same time, we recognize that should a disaster occur, the human services sector, in combination with government, is well positioned to reduce suffering and help affected New Yorkers rapidly recover, and that by preparing in advance we can maximize the effectiveness of our efforts.

Danny RosenthalConsultant to Nonprofits & Writer


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Overhead Rates in City Government Contracts Are Inadequate and Injurious

Among HSC’s most critical charges is remedying the chronic underfunding by government of human services – and increasing the rates at which City and State agencies reimburse human services providers for overhead, also known as “indirect expenses,” is among our highest priorities.

With our advocacy partners, we have researched this matter, gathered data that makes the case, and sought relief from government – and while there remains a significant distance toward resolving the issue, we are gratified to have found allies and achieved incremental progress.

We applaud Comptroller Stringer for undertaking an independent study of the issue, and for recently releasing a report that arrives at conclusions similar to our own: that, based on a sizable sample, the average overhead reimbursement rate extended by City agencies to human services provided is 8.6%; that this percentage is considerably below the actual overhead rate of most providers; and that, as a result, “non-profits are severely hobbled and many vulnerable New Yorkers are deprived of high-quality, critical services.”

Severely hobbled, indeed. No organization can fulfill its promise without sound management and infrastructure and this is certainly the case with nonprofit human services providers.  For services on the ground to achieve the desired effect, they must be supported by high-caliber financial management, human resources, information technology, facilities management, and research and evaluation functions.

To illustrate briefly, afterschool programs cannot help youth excel and forge paths to college without support in recruiting the dozens of specialists that typically staff these programs and serve as mentors and sources of inspiration for young people.  Senior centers, early childhood education facilities, mental health clinics, and supportive housing programs cannot meet their demanding missions if they are contending with the likes of leaky roofs or faulty HVAC systems. And, given that virtually all workplaces are highly dependent on e-mail, cell phones, and the Internet, no professional in any program can be productive without sophisticated technological support.

And, very simply, 8.6% does not cover these expenses. While overhead rates differ across the human services sector depending on variables like organizational size and content of program portfolios, we estimate that the average overhead rate is 15%. That means that an organization receiving $5 million in City contracts automatically incurs a deficit of about $320,000. This is a difficult and, for many human services organizations, an untenable way to operate. But because these organizations are deeply dedicated to service, they continue to accept these terms.  This is an unfair and, ultimately, a damaging practice, that needs to be rectified.

With the adoption of the City’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget last week, Mayor de Blasio and the City Council took steps toward accomplishing just that.  They committed $88 million over the next five years to increase overhead rates in City contracts to 10%, and included $17.6 million of that amount in next year’s budget.

Also very significant is that the budget included $22.7 million designated for a Model Budget initiative designed to increase budgets for selected human services programs to reflect the true and full costs of service provision. This initiative can begin to unravel chronic underfunding issues by examining the real costs of programs, address the salary disparities between human services staff and staff from government with similar responsibilities and qualifications, and understand the true indirect costs associated with running programs and contracting with government. This is not an easy undertaking, but imperative to moving the sector to financial stability.  Programs involved in this effort are services for families dealing with instability, senior centers, services for runaway and homeless youth, and adult protective services, and plans are to extend this practice to additional programs in the upcoming two Fiscal Years.

These investments mean an improvement for human services organizations, and the acknowledgment of the issue by City government leaders is reason for optimism that further gains lie ahead.

HSC will continue to keep this issue atop our agenda to ensure that human services organizations are positioned to help New Yorkers surmount barriers and realize aspirations, and to contribute to a truly equitable City.

Danny Rosenthal, Consultant to Nonprofits & Writer

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A deeper look at “sanctuaries”: next steps to protecting the undocumented population

As the federal administration continues to threaten funding cuts for self-proclaimed sanctuary cities, mayors from around the nation have spoken out to assure their commitment to this policy and their communities has not changed. For example, Mayor de Blasio has successfully taken steps to block Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents from pursuing a federally mandated search-and-deport enforcement strategy by banning agents from entering public schools without warrants and emphasizing community policing.

But what else can be done to protect undocumented immigrants and their families? As more City officials position themselves against the Trump administration, ready to fight all the way to court, there is also the looming federal budget cuts that further threaten immigrants and the nonprofits they rely on for services.

For the human services sector, these potential budget cuts compound already realized issues of working in communities – like undocumented immigrants – where federal policies already have adverse impacts. Nonprofits are essential in providing legal services, along with support services like mental health, food, shelter, and case management. The City Council has recognized that human services are integral to sanctuary policy, citing that legal services for immigrant families as just one area of services that need to be sustained in order to follow sanctuary claims. The Council’s Finance Chair, Councilmember Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, connected sanctuary policy to human services by stating, as a sanctuary city with a plan, now is the time to right-size human services contracts,” pointing to the fact that human services organizations are not in a healthy position to continue their supportive services effectively without a financial adjustment to the sector.

Human services must face the reality that more and more people may have to rely on their services in this climate, while balancing potential cutbacks in their budget to continue to provide services. Chronically underpaid contracts, however, continue to drain the resources of these organizations and their ability to serve New Yorkers.

Regardless of their documented status, human services not only provide legal support, but valuable opportunities for professional and familial support to immigrants, ensuring their ability to contribute back to their communities. From job training programs, to adult literacy classes and childcare centers, human services are the frontline providers of access and opportunity. Doing this work responsibly requires careful planning and adequate financial resources. For the Mayor, who promises to maintain New York City’s status as a place of safety and opportunity for immigrant populations, neglecting the human services sectors’ fiscal crisis during this time is problematic.

Undoubtedly the state and local government are overburdened in trying to protect all their constituents from imminent federal cutbacks. The Mayor’s decision to take a stand against federal criminalization of undocumented immigrants by designating NYC as a sanctuary city is a huge step, but this cannot be done effectively without a financially strong human services sector providing sanctuary.

As established by the Council, a direct investment in the human services sector is a direct investment in sanctuary policy. HSC’s “Sustain Our Sanctuary” campaign is asking for just that; a 12% across-the-board increase on human services contracts. Given that close to 1 in 5 New York human services providers are insolvent, delayed commitments are detrimental to New York’s stated sanctuary policy. By putting additional resources to shore up New York’s human services sector now, Mayor de Blasio will reinforce commitment to maintaining New York’s sanctuary legacy, allowing organizations to expand their services to meet the increasing demand from all New Yorkers.

Andrea Parejo, Government & External Relations Intern 

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And Will Vociferously Resist Federal Funding Cuts to Human Services

Among Donald Trump’s first acts as US President was to direct NYC and other local governments to pursue the deportation of undocumented immigrants with records of minor criminal offenses — and he signed an Executive Order decreeing that cities that do not comply, and that declare themselves Sanctuary Cities, will be stripped of federal funding.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill responded swiftly and forcefully — asserting that NYC will indeed be a Sanctuary City, that undocumented immigrants will not be harassed and that they will continue to be treated as full citizens.

HSC applauds these City government leaders for rebuffing Trump’s inhumane policy directive and blustery threat, and for standing firmly alongside our undocumented New Yorkers. Supporting immigrants and refugees has historically been one of the priorities of New York’s human services sector, and many organizations within our membership advocate on their behalf and offer such services as English-for-Speakers of other languages, employment assistance, early childhood education, and afterschool programs so they can contribute their diverse gifts and talents to the benefit of all our communities.

The details regarding Trump’s Executive Order that would deprive Sanctuary Cities of federal funding are unclear, and we are grateful that the Supreme Court has ruled that federal funds unrelated to immigration enforcement activities cannot be denied to localities refusing to adhere to Trump’s plan. We also appreciate Mayor de Blasio’s pledge to legally contest any effort to strip federal funds from NYC.

However, we must be vigilant about this matter. Many of the human services contributing to our vibrant City are financially supported by federal funds in large amounts. As examples, these include: Head Start and Early Head Start, which provide essential early childhood education to children from low-income families and enable their families to work and attend school; Child Welfare services, which help challenged families remain together and support children in the foster care system; and the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA) programs, which help un- and under-employed adults and youth gain access to decent-paying and meaningful jobs. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which provides affordable housing and access to a variety of human services to over half a million New Yorkers of all ages, is also largely funded by the federal government.

Reductions in funding to these and numerous other programs would have devastating effects to New York while also de-stabilizing human services organizations and diminishing quality-of-life for all New Yorkers.

As an organization whose mission is to strengthen New York’s nonprofit human services sector, ensuring all New Yorkers, across diverse neighborhoods, cultures, and generations reach their full potential, we will not permit our undocumented neighbors to be harmed out of fear for the loss of funding.

Instead, we will partner with leaders from government and from across the human services sector in a massive resistance to simultaneously secure the safety of undocumented immigrants and sustain the City’s human services network – while demonstrating that we will never — ever — relinquish our commitment to compassion and justice!

Danny Rosenthal, Consultant to Nonprofits & Writer

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Call to Action: Human Services Leaders to State Government

For Services to Achieve the Desired Effect,

Facilities Must be Tended

The facilities in which New Yorkers receive life-sustaining human services are the subjects of heavy wear – and too many suffer from deterioration.

These spaces are senior centers, early childhood education classrooms, youth centers, health venues, mental health offices, and supportive housing – and, frequently, they accommodate multiple functions – and are utilized constantly by all, providing myriad benefits to New Yorkers at all stages of life.

The majority of funds supporting the services provided in these locations are sourced from government, yet contracts between government and human services organizations to operate programs rarely include funds allowing for the improvement of facilities.

Providing the services that support communities responsibly requires careful planning and adequate financial resources. In the past, State legislators recognized the importance of properly maintaining these facilities and allocated funds in sizable amounts for this purpose ensuring that these programs and the communities that benefit from them were set up for success. However, this practice was discontinued nearly a decade ago – and, as a result, conditions at the facilities of many vital programs have increasingly worsened.

Budgeting is a matter of asserting values and making choices. Aged and energy-inefficient systems cause discomfort and disruption and tarnished settings diminish the morale of participants and staff – conveying to them the discouraging message that they are unvalued. When these facilities are in disrepair and unappealing, the quality of programs is threatened.

To remedy the situation, HSC and our partners advocated strenuously for State capital funding for human services to be re-instated, and two years ago Governor Cuomo accommodated the request and designated $50 million for a NYS Nonprofit Infrastructure Capital Investment Program, and last year the State legislature renewed the program. And, recently, following a competitive solicitation combining the funds allocated over both years, the funds were allocated to dozens of human services organizations, including 29 HSC members.

At Sunnyside Community Services, an outdated space dedicated to a variety of programs for seniors – including home care, case management, Social Adult Day Care – will be renovated to allow for optimal safety, repair of leaks, private meetings regarding sensitive matters, upgraded aesthetics, and a more efficient use of space.

At Forestdale, a Queens-based family services organization, three outmoded 75 year-old buildings will be converted into state-of-the-art centers focused on early childhood education, adult education, career and family support, greatly adding to the organization’s efforts to help young people exiting the foster care system, new parents balancing competing demands, and families healing from past distresses.

These and many other upgrades supported by the Nonprofit Infrastructure Capital Investment Program will undoubtedly translate to stronger outcomes for participants in programs, but a great many worthy proposals to the State program were declined, and the funds allocated only begin to address unmet capital needs for many organizations receiving the grants.

As policymakers develop the New York State FY18 public budget, slated to be adopted by April 1, HSC has been advocating in coalition with our partners to double funding for the Nonprofit Infrastructure Capital Investment Program. But, in a move that has confounded human services leaders, the Governor did not include funds for the program in his budgetary proposal, and neither the Senate nor Assembly has added the funds.

A failure to invest in the facilities that house these services is ironic and short-sighted. Inadequate facilities will undermine the efforts of human services organizations to help New Yorkers surmount barriers, thereby making it more difficult to achieve the progress we all desire, and likely leading to additional expenses.

It is imperative that human services leaders continue to loudly assert the necessity of renewing and increasing funds for capital projects.

Please take part in this critical advocacy effort. (Click for instructions)

Danny Rosenthal, Consultant to Nonprofits & Writer

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New York’s Overtime Rules: A Nonprofit Perspective

On Wednesday, December 28, the New York State Department of Labor finalized a wage order that significantly increased the salary thresholds for executive and administrative employees.  This wage order, which took effect a mere three days later on New Year’s Eve, was intended to bring the employee classification system into line with the recently increase minimum wage, and it resulted in thousands more workers across the state becoming eligible for overtime pay.[1]  The Human Services Council of New York (HSC) supports this effort to ensure that employees are compensated fairly for their labor.  At the same time, we are deeply disappointed by the government’s failure to provide the funding that nonprofit human services organizations need to comply with the wage order.  The latest wage order is yet another example of an unfunded mandate that will further destabilize a brittle but critically needed sector.

As noted in our public comment on the proposed rule, the government outsources much of its obligatory social service delivery to nonprofit organizations.  The nonprofit sector is an economic engine in our state, providing nearly 1.3 million jobs to 18 percent of the state’s workforce, with wages totaling $62 billion.  Contrary to popular belief, nonprofit human services organizations are not “subsidized” by government.  Rather, they are partners of government, delivering required services on behalf of the government agencies with which they contract.  They are no more subsidized than private school bus companies or defense contractors.

Unfortunately, government routinely imposes unfunded mandates on nonprofit organizations that compromise their financial and operational stability.  For example, copious and often redundant audit requirements divert already scarce resources from pursuit of an organization’s mission.  These mandates, paired with unrealistically low limits on indirect or “overhead” costs,[2] arbitrary and crippling restrictions on spending, and stagnant contracts that have not kept pace with inflation, create the very conditions in our sector that government, the media, and the public often malign.  They have left many organizations precariously balanced at the brink of collapse.  As such, few human services organizations can cover the cost of the state’s new wage mandates.

Of course, the new wage requirements affect employers in every sector.  As we explained in our comment, however, the nonprofit human services sector is unique because service organizations’ budgets are largely determined by the stagnant government contracts mentioned above.  These organizations are not at liberty to change their pricing.  For nonprofits that deliver services on behalf of government, the ability to pay staff is directly tied to the size of their contracts.  These contracts are notoriously inadequate.  The new wage requirements leave nonprofit organizations holding the proverbial bag.  Nonprofit organizations that do business with government should be good stewards of the public dollars that they receive, but they must be supported—rather than financially sabotaged—by government contracting practices.

The human services workforce is comprised mostly of people of color and is predominantly female.  Since the financial crisis of 2008, these workers were denied cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) in state contracts for five consecutive years, while the cost of living increased at a rapid clip.  Many found themselves turning to the same public assistance programs that their clients use.  Furthermore, the sector delivers a wide range of services to diverse clients across the state, helping them cope with challenges and live healthy, safe, productive lives.  Care for children, seniors, the disabled, victims of violence, and the homeless; treatment for those suffering from trauma or addiction; and services for individuals facing barriers to employment or justice system involvement are just a few examples of the contributions of this important sector.  When service organizations falter, the communities that they serve suffer.  All of this makes the sector an ideal conduit for advancing the Governor’s equity agenda.

It is time for the state government, as an outsourcer of human services, to ensure that its nonprofit partners are set up for success.  One meaningful way to do so is to invest in the sector’s workforce.  Accordingly, HSC urges the Governor and the Legislature to appropriate funding to mitigate the financial effects of the minimum wage increase and the new exempt employee salary thresholds on its nonprofit partners.

[1] According to the Department of Labor, the increase in the salary thresholds was adopted in order to bring the thresholds in line with the newly increased minimum wage—a policy change that HSC, FPWA, the Fiscal Policy Institute, and many other partners vociferously advocated in conjunction with a call for additional funding.

[2] On this point, philanthropy is often guilty as well.  No one wants to pay the workers, but everyone wants the work to get done.

by Tracie Robinson

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HSC’s Semiannual Membership Meeting 2017

On Wednesday, February 08, 2017, the Human Services Council hosted our second FY17 membership meeting. The morning included:

  • a panel discussion on the impact of the federal election on the human services sector;
  • updates on HSC FY17 initiatives and strategy;
  • a vote on a slate of the Priority and Strategy Council;
  • HSC RFP rater and Government Agency Scorecard; and
  • updates on the Nonprofit Resiliency Committee.

Panel Discussion: Federal Administration and the Human Services Sector

As we move forward from the federal election, it’s crucial that we understand how federal economic shifts will affect our sector and our organizations. Moderated by Pat Jenny, Vice President of New York Community Trust, we engaged in dialogue with Jared Bernstein, Chief Economist and Economic Policy Advisor, and James Parrot, Deputy Director and Chief Economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute. The panelists discussed how potential federal policies like the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, plans to cut taxes, and implementation of block grants might affect City and State budgets. Many of these suggested policies might result in decreased funding to the City and State which will have a negative effect on human services organizations and the people we serve. Jared stressed the importance of monitoring non-defense discretionary spending and other funding streams that might affect human services. James suggested that the City and State are well positioned to weather potential cuts; ultimately, the sector should remain flexible, united, and ready to take action if necessary.

Updates on HSC FY17 Priorities and Strategy

Following the discussion, Allison Sesso, Executive Director of HSC, presented updates on HSC’s priorities for FY17. After the federal election, we find ourselves as part of a continuously evolving landscape.  We at HSC realize that we must remain flexible and ready to shift when necessary, while maintaining a clear and consistent goal—to insist on a strong nonprofit human services sector so that communities receive the programming, support, and services they need to thrive.

Highlights of HSC’s current priorities include advocacy efforts at local, state, and federal levels.

  • 12% Campaign to increase funding for indirect and OTPS concerns, which we’ve identified as central to the sector’s sustainability.
    • We are in discussion with high level City officials, and are looking for a solution that offers flexibility and address part of the budget other than raises for direct program staff.
  • Restore Opportunity Now Campaign, in partnership with FPWA and the Fiscal Policy Institute, is the first time we’ve created a statewide coalition, with 360 organizations signed on. Asks for this year include:
    • 15% overhead or federal indirect rate
    • Pay for minimum wage in contracts
    • More funding for nonprofit infrastructure fund ($100 mm)
  • Federal Roundtable intended to track and analyze fiscal, policy, and legislative shifts in order to understand the impact on nonprofits and communities
    • In response to federal shifts, we are forming a roundtable with key partners:
      • Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of NY
      • FPWA
      • UJA-Federation
      • United Neighborhood Houses
  • Value-based Payment Commission, spurred from the Call to Action Commission Work, intends to strengthen our role as thought leaders and discuss:
    • Risks inherent in VBP for nonprofits;
    • What is needed to mitigate those risks and ensure nonprofits are able to participate effectively in VBP (g., contractual language, funding, oversight structures for our relationships with hospitals);
    • What we can contribute to achieving better health outcomes; and
    • How we can demonstrate our value.
  • Disaster Readiness and Resilience Work is a natural and inevitable pivot nonprofits will take in the time of disaster. HSC is at the forefront of these efforts to help the sector prepare in order to reduce the potential risk on individual agencies.
  • Media Strategy
    • Our media consultant has been an important tool to get our message out and to help encourage government to prioritize the things we are asking for
  • Advocacy Institute
    • Trainings direct lead advocates and coalition partners on making their advocacy more targeted, robust, and effective.
  • Reframing intends to shift the public mindset of human services and focuses on human potential and positive community impact.
    • Our new mission statement reflects this important change:
      • HSC strengthens New York’s nonprofit human services sector, ensuring all New Yorkers, across diverse neighborhoods, cultures, and generations reach their full potential.

HSC’s Priority and Strategy Council

Following HSC updates, the membership in attendance voted on a new Priority and Strategy Council. Thomas Krever, head of the Nominating and Governance Committee, described the process HSC went through this year to adjust our governance structure and create this group. The Priority and Strategy Council is chaired by Frederick Shack and works in tandem with the Board to set priorities and develop feasible strategies.

After a unanimous vote, we are honored to welcome the new Priority and Strategy Council which can be found here.


RFP Rater and Scorecard Updates

Following the recommendations in our Commission Report, HSC has created a new set of raters that will enable HCS to inform its members about risks and opportunities associated with bids for human services contracts with the State and City of New York.  The RFP rater will allow participants to rate Request for Proposals and the Gov Grader will produce an annual scorecard of the City and State agency contract management performance.

Update on Nonprofit Resiliency Committee

The final piece on the agenda was a panel discussion update on the Nonprofit Resiliency Committee, led by Jack Krauskopf, Director of the Center for Nonprofit Strategy and Management at Baruch College. All three co-Chairs provided an update on the work they are doing, including renewal and auditing processes and the creation of a service design toolkit for Request for Proposals (RFPs).

The co-Chairs are as follows:

  • Phoebe Boyer, Collaborative Service and Program Design
  • Louisa Chafee, Organizational Infrastructure
  • Frederick Shack, Streamline Administrative Process


HSC is looking forward to continuing our efforts on behalf of the sector. We would like to thank our funders for their support of our work:

  • Altman Foundation
  • The Clark Foundation
  • Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
  • The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust
  • The Kresge Foundation
  • New York City Council
  • The New York Community Trust
  • United Way of New York City
  • UJA-Federation of New York

We have an ambitious agenda and we thank our members, supporters, and partners for your dedication and advocacy towards the strength and sustainability of our sector.

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Nonprofits Championed A Sorely Needed Boost For Workers; But the Law Adds to these Organizations’ Financial Challenges

A Missive from Human Services Council and FPWA
Second in a Series

Last year, New York and California adopted the historic $15/hour minimum wage law — an important vehicle for enabling self-sufficiency for workers and a defining symbol of the movement for an equitable economy.

The Human Services Council, FPWA, the Fiscal Policy Institute, and other organizations advocated strenuously for this measure – both out of our belief in its great value for those we serve and because many members of the human services workforce, whose salaries fall below the $15 per hour threshold and struggle financially themselves, would benefit.

These human services workers play vital and indispensable roles, helping low-income children, youth, families, immigrants, and seniors to rise above socioeconomic stresses, achieve stability, and pursue high aspirations. These efforts build well-being for those served directly and, they contribute to vibrant communities from which we all benefit. That these human services workers are contending with poverty is unacceptable, and a $15 minimum wage will translate to a meaningful quality-of-life improvement for them.

In New York City, the law will be implemented incrementally, rising to $15 per hour in 2018. To this point, the first installment has been executed, lifting the current minimum wage in the city to $11.50. Throughout the remainder of New York State, the current minimum wage has been raised to between $9.70 and $10 an hour depending on location, with the increase to $15/hour to occur in phases over the upcoming years.

To support the increase for human services workers functioning under City contracts, City government has extended the necessary funds to human services contracts, and City leaders have pledged to continue this practice until the law is fully executed.

But, with the exception of certain Medicaid-funded service providers, State government has not provided funds for the majority of human services workers functioning under State contracts and has not indicated a willingness to do so going forward — a move that has baffled and frustrated human services executives who are compelled to draw the funds from existing – and frequently highly compromised – organizational budgets.

The State has the ability to cover these expenses. Budgeting is a matter of asserting values and making choices and it is long past time that the State prioritized the human services workers and services that enrich our communities. The amount needed to fund the increase this year is $12 million and $25 million next year – sums that represents a mere .000007% and .000015% of the State’s budget this and next year, but that translates into sizable expenses for individual human services organizations. In dozens of interviews and focus groups conducted by Human Services Council, FPWA, and the Fiscal Policy Institute across the State, executives of human services organizations have described the budgetary pressures they continually face. One calculated that eliminating their entire senior management team would cover only a quarter of the increased expense associated with the minimum wage law.

Another factor, unacknowledged by the law, is that to avoid wage compression, human services workers with salaries currently at and above $15 per hour will be due increases and pay scales will need to be adjusted upwards across organizations. While these workers are deserving of raises, the budgets of most human services organizations cannot absorb them while still maintaining the same level of service provision — thereby compounding the difficulties of the unfunded minimum wage increase.

The primary reason for the budgetary dilemmas of human services organizations is chronic and systematic under-funding by government. Government contracts often fail to cover the full cost of services and they rarely provide overhead rates that permit programs to be properly supported by administrative functions. Also critical, government contracts frequently do not provide sufficient funds for the salaries and fringe benefits of human services workers while government employees (and those from the healthcare sector) with comparable responsibilities are far better compensated. This makes it difficult for human services organizations to retain and hire qualified staff, many of whom turn-over to government positions. In too many instances, these factors threaten the quality of services and prevent human services organizations from acting on bold and innovative ideas needed to reverse entrenched problems like high school dropout and homelessness.

State government’s withholding of the funds to cover the minimum wage increase is, then, highly ironic. The law was designed to support low-income people, but shortchanging human services organizations will have the effect of weakening these very entities that government has selected to carry out this mission.

The Human Services Council, FPWA, and Fiscal Policy Institute have created the Restore Opportunity Now campaign, a statewide coalition of over 350 organizations determined to secure greater investments in the human services sector. As Governor Cuomo and members of the State legislature negotiate the State budget, on behalf of our partners, we convey to them this message:

We applaud you for leading the effort nationally to increase the minimum wage. This policy will assist many New Yorkers, and it should serve as a springboard to others that further remedy our skewed economic systems. But if we are to achieve a truly equitable society, the human services sector – the engine for helping people transcend the barriers of class and race – must be entirely supported. It is imperative, then, that the minimum wage for human services workers is fully funded in the State’s 2017-18 budget.

-Contributed by Danny Rosenthal. Danny Rosenthal is a consultant to nonprofit organizations and a free-lance writer.

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