11: Amplifying the Voice of Nonprofit Youth Agencies
The foundation’s work on families, children, and youth has not always involved actual grant-making. The birth and development of something called Community Voices for Youth & Families is a case in point. It is not one of Parmely’s grantees and technically not part of her program area. But the foundation felt the need to help anyway.
Amy Hagedorn’s two-decade experience with pre-kindergarten education made early childhood a natural focus. “All the studies say that that’s where you can make a huge difference if you invest, and therefore, that’s where we started working, because there was a need,” Darren Sandow said. “As she was so fond of saying, it was our niche. So we wanted to fill it.”
But older children, including teenagers, need help, too.
In 2012, a crisis faced a group of agencies that provide after-school and other services to at-risk youth. The triggering event was a political struggle at the highest levels of Nassau County government: The county legislature’s Democratic minority objected to the way the Republican majority wanted to redraw the boundaries of legislative districts, as a result of the 2010 US Census. The Democrats were so unhappy with the redistricting process that they refused to provide the votes necessary for the county to borrow money to cover the cost of paying property tax refunds.
In that battle of the titans, the losers were the small youth services agencies, which couldn’t even rely on a revenue stream that they had worked hard to help the county acquire. The youth services agencies had played a role in persuading the State Legislature to allow red-light cameras in Nassau. The money from fines paid by red-light runners was to pay for youth services. But the county decided to divert the red light money from the agencies to the payment of property tax refunds. The Democrats blamed Republicans, including County Executive Edward Mangano, for funding cuts to the agencies. The Republicans blamed the Democrats. In the summer of 2012, the agencies staged a mock funeral, complete with hearses and coffins, at the State Supreme Court in Mineola. The outlook for 2013 was grim: a budget that would cut funding for these agencies by $7.3 million.
Though the agencies were not Hagedorn Foundation grantees, Amy had provided some support through her fund. The county approached Sandow with a request that the foundation act as an adviser, based on its expertise in handling grants and working with nonprofits.
That led to a series of meetings between Sandow and the youth agencies. Years earlier, they had formed the Nassau County Coalition of Youth Service Agencies. But the crisis provided the spark that led to a new collaboration, called Community Voices for Youth & Families.
“It just started out with a realization that, unless we got our groups to think differently, advocacy would never change and remain ineffective,” Sandow said. “To be quite honest, I was told this by the county folks: Each time they looked out the window and a protest was going on, it was all the same faces, and it was always the executive directors of the various agencies, and not the people who benefited from the services.” Something had to change. “I brought folks together, using our convening power and also the ability to feed people. It became Community Voices.”
Over lunch at the foundation’s offices, the leaders of the agencies began discussing strategies for securing the funding they needed to keep their vital work going. The Hagedorn offices became “a safe place where we could have an open discussion of what are the obstacles, what are the pros and cons of a collaborative effort,” said Lynette Batts, executive director of the Littig House Community Center in Port Washington.
The existing Nassau County Coalition had been formed to represent agencies who got funding from the Nassau County Youth Board. The new entity that grew up had wider goals: covering the whole Long Island region, including agencies from Suffolk County, Long Island’s easternmost county. Getting Suffolk nonprofits to collaborate wasn’t easy, because they had tried collaboration in the past and had run into difficult obstacles. But Community Voices pushed ahead, and a small core of Suffolk agencies joined the effort.
During months of meetings, Community Voices discussed a variety of approaches for assuring the agencies a steady source of government funding, more reliable than the yearly struggle with county government. They thought about state legislation that would mandate counties to provide the funding. But local governments in New York are deeply averse to what they call “unfunded mandates,” state laws that require them to do something, but don’t provide state funding for it. They also spent some time thinking about getting a referendum item on a countywide ballot, dictating annual youth services funding. But they decided that the legal and political obstacles to that approach were too formidable.
In the last years of the foundation’s life, the Community Voices meetings continued over Hagedorn-provided lunch at Cedarmere, the historic William Cullen Bryant mansion that became the foundation’s home in the spring of 2014. When ScottsMiracle-Gro decided it needed the basement space in Port Washington where the foundation had enjoyed no-cost accommodations, Sandow had to look around for a new place. Nassau County offered Cedarmere, the estate of preeminent American poet and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant. The foundation paid for much-needed repairs, in return for the right to use the estate as its offices until the end of 2017. That meant that a philanthropic organization was suddenly the landlord of an historic building and grounds, dealing with such pressing issues as parking lot security and ever-present Canada geese. When the cost of goose-poop removal came up at a staff meeting, Amy said, “We’re running a park!”
Sandow regularly attended the Community Voices meetings, but despite the foundation’s financial and logistical support for the group, he didn’t dictate. “Although he sits at the table, it’s ultimately the group’s decision,” Batts said. “He’s bringing experience to the table. So it’s kind of like he’s a member providing support, not that he’s giving direction. He’s hands-off when it comes to that.”
Ultimately, Community Voices settled on a strategy of working toward getting regular state funding through the annual budget process. With financial backing from Hagedorn, they chose to collaborate with Network for Youth Success, a statewide advocacy group with New York City roots, and with Hinman Straub, a powerful and experienced Albany lobbying firm. In between regular conference calls with Hinman Straub during late 2016 and early 2017, Community Voices made some real progress on bringing their needs to the attention of state legislators.
On Long Island, members of Community Voices met with senators and Assembly members, hoping to get an allocation of $1.5 million placed in the Fiscal Year 2018 budget for the organization’s member agencies. In Albany, Hinman Straub’s team kept track of progress and helped Community Voices stay on task.
By the time February turned to March 2017, and the final month of budget deliberations was at hand, they had succeeded in elevating the issue to the attention of the legislature’s central fiscal staff. The key obstacle turned out to be this: If the state put $1.5 million in the budget for them, the Senate’s fiscal staff asked, how would the money get distributed? As a result, Community Voices incorporated itself, to become the vehicle for distribution of the funds.
In the end, after all the planning, meetings with legislators, and effort spent generating support for their cause, Community Voices and Hinman Straub came up with an allocation of $1.5 million. That wasn’t a lot of money, given all the agencies that needed funding, but the process did lead to the incorporation of Community Voices, gave the agency leaders valuable insight into the budget process, and set a precedent for future, more adequate funding. It would have been better if Community Voices had had the opportunity to decide which agencies would receive what. But legislators, always eager to be seen as the bearers of gifts, exercised that prerogative for themselves. Still, winning the $1.5 million was a real start, and it wouldn’t have happened without Hagedorn money paying for a skilled lobbyist—after years of work leading up to that.
The foundation’s involvement with county government has produced other tangible results, such as the Nassau Nonprofit Task Force. That collaboration between nonprofit agencies and Nassau County government had its roots in a proposed reorganization of county government after County Executive Edward Mangano took office at the start of 2010.
“He was talking about consolidating the different departments, and among the consolidations that were going to take place, he was going to put the youth board into the Department of Health and Human Services,” Sandow recalled. That proposal raised fears that the transition would kill the Youth Board. “They had a terrific staff that was in place, seasoned, and knew how to do the work.”
Amy suggested that Darren set up a meeting with the county, and he did. In the process, he met a county official named Brian Nugent. “He and I just got along, and I could tell he was a person who really cared,” Sandow recalled. “So I started working with Brian on the issue, with the blessings of the higher-ups in the administration. That’s where we came up with a partnership agreement, where we would support some of the work through Amy’s fund.” The idea was to keep the Youth Board team in place “until we figured out a better way for everything to work.”
After the political battles and the cuts to youth services agencies, Sandow and Nugent met for lunch, and both were upset by what had happened. “What we decided was that we needed to begin a formal relationship,” Sandow recalled. They wanted to work together more publicly and involve other people. “All the ideas eventually grew into what became the Nassau Nonprofit Task Force.”
The task force included Sandow and others from the nonprofits, plus representatives of county government. Early in its deliberations, what became clear was that too many of the nonprofits were having problems both getting their county contracts on time every year for renewal and getting paid on time. What emerged was a series of horror stories about a paper-based contract system with many opportunities for paperwork to get stuck on a desk in one of the county departments that had to approve it.
Over time, those meetings did bear fruit. First, the county’s own information technology staff created something called Data Vault, which allowed nonprofits to upload electronically to the county a variety of documents connected with their contracts. Later, the IT staff created a digitized contract routing system for keeping track of contracts as they moved through the departments. Those developments didn’t guarantee zero tolerance for contract delays, but they represented real progress.
You can see progress, too, in the many areas that Hagedorn funds for families, children, and youth. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians do developmental screenings, but too often, that doesn’t happen before a child reaches school age, unprepared. A Hagedorn grantee, Docs for Tots, has worked hard to increase the percentage of kids getting that screening.
In Every Child Matters, you can see greater engagement in advocacy for children. In an evaluation of its work, 75 percent of those interviewed said that they use their voting power to support candidates committed to investing in kids.
In Choice for All, working closely with the economically challenged community of Roosevelt, you can witness the beginnings of an effective program of regular home visits to young children, to reinforce the home as a place of learning.
Evaluating the impact of the foundation’s grantees remains difficult. In the arena of families, children, and youth, as in so much of the foundation’s work, precise mathematic measurement of progress is elusive. “I could say 20 people showed up to a training,” Parmely said. “I could say 10 of those people developed an action to go to a meeting at the school board and get this implemented. OK, but then what? It’s deeper than that. It goes much deeper than that, and trying to capture that is usually over a period of time. So it’s a little bit hard.” But that has never discouraged the foundation from funding those who dedicate themselves daily to continuing their vital work.