JACKSONVILLE, Florida (February 8, 2011) — If there are any bright spots to be found in the Great Recession, one may be the way organizations have changed to meet the soaring demand from people in need.
Consider the Hunger SWAT Team – an informal coalition of 14 community-based, emergency service nonprofit organizations that, over the course of two years, have found new ways to work in the community and with each other, to the benefit of their clients and their own organizational health.
These 14 organizations are an eclectic mix of nonprofits — small faith-based organizations, national organizations and large community institutions — each of which provides some form of basic emergency services: food, shelter, clothing and rent or utility assistance.
In fall 2008, as the economy unraveled, Jessie Ball duPont Fund president Sherry Magill convened representatives of these organizations to inform the Fund about the impact of the recession on poor and vulnerable people. The stories and data they shared were influential in the Fund’s decision to invest $1 million in grants to local organizations providing core safety-net services during 2009.
As the 2009 grant program — which ultimately attracted more than $600,000 in matching funds from other donors — unfolded, Magill challenged the 14 organizations to think not just about meeting today’s needs, but about strategies to address the longer-term.
They needed little motivation.
To an organization, these nonprofits were overwhelmed by client demand, and the structural strains that demand was placing on their operations. The community’s largest homeless shelter was sleeping people on the floor of the dining hall, and its utility bills had tripled. A church-based charity saw people in line at its food bank who previously had been contributors to its program. More than one organization was operating in the red.
Despite the similarity of their mission and clientele, the representatives of these organizations had never sat around a table with one another. They worked, in some cases, just blocks apart, but did not know one another.
Through a series of monthly meetings, facilitated by Jessie Ball duPont Fund Program Director Sally Douglass, the representatives shared their organizational stories and quickly identified opportunities for collaboration. Dubbing themselves the “SWAT Team,” they picked two targets for early action: joint marketing and bulk purchasing.
“Even though each organization has to raise its own funding, as a group they recognized the power of coming together to build community awareness of the alarming increase in the number of people going hungry in Jacksonville,” said Douglass.
One large faith-based nonprofit brought its marketing agency to the table. The agency representative donated the time and talent to create a common website and public service announcements, all of which were ready for the start of the fourth-quarter giving season in 2009.
At the same time, staff from another nonprofit gathered data on each organization’s paper-products-purchasing history and identified places where bulk purchasing would be beneficial. Another nonprofit offered warehouse storage space and in short order, bulk-purchasing agreements were negotiated with two national vendors, resulting in significant savings.
In 2010, need continued at record levels, as Florida’s economy struggled more than the nation’s in rebounding from the collapse. The Jessie Ball duPont Fund awarded a second round of safety-net grants, this time contributing $500,000, which was matched by more than $500,000 in contributions from other donors.
The members of the Hunger SWAT Team, still meeting monthly, discovered a shared concern over their own organizations’ utility costs. The cost of expanded operations, decline in private contributions and a coinciding increase in utility rates had created new strains on operating budgets.
They decided a conversation with executives of the local utility — the Jacksonville Electric Authority — was in order.
“As a group, they have so much more leverage,” said Douglass. “Instead of one nonprofit going to see the JEA executive, the group requested a joint meeting with JEA. The resulting conversation was totally different.”
Impressed with the fact that the 14 organizations had formed themselves into the SWAT Team, JEA head Jim Dickinson responded well to the team’s concerns.
He introduced them to special cost-saving programs typically available only to small for-profit businesses.
He provided agencies access to client accounts, so agencies can help clients better manage their utility usage and finances.
And, of great importance, the JEA established escrow accounts for each SWAT Team member to enable agencies to recover the utility deposits paid on behalf of clients when the client moves. These recaptured funds can then be used as deposits for future clients.
“The benefits of having a team consensus agenda are wonderful,” Douglass said, “but the greatest benefit is the lessons these organizations have learned about the power of collaboration and the power of a shared voice. Each is a unique and distinct organization but as a team, they have developed a common agenda and learned how to use the power of a shared voice to benefit their clients, their organizations, and the community.”