Letter - Why the Non-Profit Sector Matters
By Benedict F. Lessing, Jr. MSW, President/CEO, Community Care Alliance
Published in the Providence Journal March 5, 2022
Throughout the years I have heard repeatedly that there are too many non-profits in Rhode Island. A popular narrative is that these organizations are “magnets” for people in need. The COVID corollary would be that less testing would translate to fewer cases; the results of that thinking were clearly tragic. Yet, somehow in the last 20 years we have come to the conclusion that ignoring families living in poverty, mental illness, children struggling with mental health concerns, a raging opioid epidemic and substance use through the roof are acceptable. The consequences for turning a blind eye to these human problems have also been tragic and at times unfortunately less visible.
Ignoring reality has manifested itself by allowing the State’s human service infrastructure to dangerously deteriorate. We see the consequences in homelessness, mentally ill individuals both children and adults being boarded in Emergency Departments, daily overdoses, unnecessary psychiatric hospital admissions or ones that could have been averted with the proper community-based services. Families that become ensnared in the child welfare system languishing for longer periods absent non-profit support services funded by DCYF that parents and children depend on due to staffing shortages. We have not only reached a tipping point, but are trying not to fall into the abyss.
Still, there are remarkable examples of mission driven non-profit organizations attempting to persevere thru this crisis to keep individuals and families safe while addressing complex needs. The Hope Project recently spotlighted in the Journal is an excellent example of a public-private collaboration that both saves and reclaims lives but can only continue to do so if the financial resources are available going forward for this project as well as recovery services. There are numerous examples where government depends on the expertise and collaboration of non-profit organizations to solve complex problems that State and municipal authorities are not equipped to address. Yet, we struggle to pay the heroic staff in these programs both a living and competitive wage.
This session of the General Assembly will be the most consequential in 40 years. State revenues beyond the American Rescue Plan Act create an opportunity to repair the systematic degradation of our human services infrastructure. However, this depends on two things; first both Senators and Representatives must educate themselves about the importance of the non-profit sector and its value to the health and well-being of RI. A second consideration is that in the midst of a horrific workforce crisis across all sectors particularly small business such as non-profits, understanding that not addressing human needs hurts the State economically. We spend way too much on Police, Rescue, Hospital, Child Welfare and Corrections resources on human needs that could be addressed more effectively by non-profit human service agencies.
Non-profit organizations must do a better job of educating the public and elected officials as to the quality, flexible, cost-effective services we provide that save lives, restore hope and dignity while saving the State money. We also must underscore that we are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis and that ignoring the human needs of people too often pushed to the margins as a result of stigma, racism and economic and health care disparities beyond their control is not acceptable. We cannot forget that it is an election year. My hope is that anyone seeking public office learns the facts and realities regarding people in need in local communities rather than buying into misinformation and old narratives. We can fix this if we work together.