How Do We Keep Helping the Kids?

I spoke to the board chair of an organization that works in community mental health. Reflecting on the last year and a half, he described how the board focused on making sure their organization could continue providing vital services. He expressed their commitment to the core work which meant the board stepping up to raise sufficient funds.

Kids’ Problems Don’t Go Away

As told by a Board Chair somewhere in the U.S.

My organization serves kids and families coping with mental illness, substance abuse, and violence. We work in schools as well as directly. When COVID hit, the board’s first thought was how do we keep helping kids? We cannot just go away. Kids’ problems don’t go away. How do we keep us going and keep addressing the needs of the kids in our community? How do we do outreach? Because we are in schools, kids can see our counselors without their parents’ involvement. Not being able to see kids in school is a huge issue.

We had discussed telehealth before, that we really needed to get some systems in place. But with COVID, it wasn’t a theoretical discussion that we could kick down the road to another date when we were all a little less busy. We had to figure out how to do it and how to do it right away.

Our board does not get into the day-to-day operations of the organization. We expect our ED and the team to implement that. But we had lots of discussion. We asked what they were doing to make sure that staff could keep seeing the kids and how we could support them. We looked at our budgets, at our fundraising. We asked whether we could open doors to some local technology companies to see if they could offer any in-kind help getting us set up for telehealth.

Most of our services became remote. There were still some in-person services with all the social distancing protocols in place. Some services need to be in person for those who don’t feel comfortable online or who don’t have the technology.

Funding Was and Is a Major Concern

As a board, we were worried about funding. We still are worried about funding. About one-quarter of our funding comes from donors. A lot comes from government, Medicaid, and fee-for-service. Medicaid and insurance don’t cover our full costs. Government grants are not reliable.

Staff salaries are a big challenge for any nonprofit. We have to balance the budget and raise money to attract and retain good people – it’s for the kids. The work staff does is important. It is also hard. There is a lot of heavy stuff. They deal with tough issues. They get burnt out. And their wages are not enough. Turnover is always an issue.

That is always on top of my mind. The board made a concerted effort this year so we could provide raises especially for the mental health counselors to try to get them more competitive. These times are challenging. We hope that the raises will lead to better retention. We can never be as competitive as private practice. But we have always prided ourselves on keeping turnover down.

We were able to get a PPP loan early on, so we did not have to make drastic cuts to personnel. Our annual event is in March. We had to cancel it. The event is big and brings in a lot of unrestricted funding. It is our one important gathering. Donors come and hear the stories of our kids and a guest speaker. After it was cancelled, the development team did a fantastic job putting together a virtual campaign. They told our guests that we had to cancel but that we still needed funding. They explained why the work we do is so important, especially now. The message resonated. We got a couple donations that were above and beyond which helped us beat our goal.

We did not hold the event again this year in March. Instead, the team is planning a virtual event. I don’t know all the details of what is involved but I know it is not going to be a big event where a bunch of people are all in the same room together.

I am nervous to see how fundraising is going to work going forward. We’ve always had this big event. That said, we have an opportunity to evaluate how we fundraise. I think COVID has given us a chance to be intentional about what we are doing and experiment with things that we would not have done in the pasts to see what works better.

When we are running a budget shortfall, instead of asking what we can cut, we need to ask how we can get more money to pay for what we need to do. You should always plan for a worse-case scenario. But in my opinion, cutting should be the last-ditch effort.

If Doing Our Work Requires More Money, Then We Have to Figure out How to Raise More Money

I have learned from the past year that you have to be flexible and creative and have creative people around you. You also have to be committed to keeping your core work, your mission, going forward. We are here to help kids who are struggling. Our role as a board is to help the organization continue to do that and to do that better. So, if that means we go to go out and raise more money, we figure out how to raise more money.

Lessons Learned

  • Put your clients first.
  • Pay staff well to reduce turnover.
  • Be creative to figure out how to raise money.

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