April 15, 2019
Rule of Law

CT must rely more on nonprofits for service delivery

John Horak

I write frequently about the sad state of Connecticut's nonprofit human-services industry.

The members of this industry are "charities" as commonly understood, but "industry" is a fitting term given their operating complexity.

This industry is troubled because it is trapped in a web of financial, regulatory and political strands spun around it by its competitor, which happens to be our second human-services industry — the one owned by the government. Its members include the departments of Mental Health and Addiction Services, Children and Families, and Developmental Services.

The competition has tax money in the bank and the high-octane power of a unionized labor force; and, to put it frankly, it has managed to hijack and rig the way human services are delivered in Connecticut to keep itself flush by keeping state and federal money that should be distributed to the nonprofits.

I've consistently advocated for legislation to reign in government's power and to increase the autonomy and financing of the nonprofits.

Nonprofit leadership has been making this same argument to the General Assembly year after year without success. The 2019 legislative session promises more of the same, and the lack of progress is fostering frustration in the ranks and among supporters.

However, frustration often leads to insight; and mine is that the system will not change absent a large-scale outside intervention (Gov. Ned Lamont please note) because the relationship of government to the nonprofits is that of an abusive co-dependent partner, and abusive/co-dependent relationships are hard to break without an intervention.

It wasn't supposed to be this way when the relationship started. Nonprofit organizations had been caring for people for years before state government jumped in significantly in the late 1960s. This was the Great Society era, and the spirit of the times was that government would bring its resources to bear and work cooperatively with the nonprofits. An apropos example is the Village for Families and Children in Hartford, which opened its doors in 1809. The Department of Children and Families opened its in 1969.

At the beginning, nonprofits were thrilled with their new partner because they trusted government, and because the tax revenue the government disbursed was easy money (or so it appeared) when compared with the hard work of private charitable fundraising.

However, the marriage started to break down when money got tight, the state's unfunded obligations soared, and union infiltration resulted in the de facto takeover of the human-services bureaucracies. The result is a system rigged to create co-dependency among the nonprofits and a bizarrely inefficient human-services system.

Co-dependency is not a pleasant word for anyone to use (especially about a loved one) because it means being stuck in a dysfunctional, one-sided relationship, in which you rely on the other for your needs, and the symptoms include people-pleasing, poor boundaries, lack of control and denial.

My use of the term is based on conversations with industry insiders, all of whom premised their statements with some variation of the admonition "you didn't hear this from me, but … , " and which I paraphrase as follows: "the state divides and conquers," "we spend more time fighting among ourselves," "no one in government understands the flow of state and federal dollars," "government may be out of compliance with Medicaid," "some nonprofits play an insider's game and do well while others don't," "if I complain too loud they'll send in auditors to make life miserable," "I fear retribution," "I can't believe how obsequiously we all act when talking with state officials," and on and on.

I mean no disrespect to the nonprofits — they did nothing wrong — it was government that broke bad, and that's why it's incumbent upon Gov. Lamont to spearhead an intervention. In his inaugural address he said Connecticut (unlike Wisconsin) is a state where public-sector collective bargaining can be made to work. Human services is a good place to start.

John M. Horak is the director of TANGO Nonprofit Education and Consulting. His opinions are his own.

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