By Jim Cawley
Last week, Pennsylvania officially moved on from its historic nine-month budget impasse. Gov. Wolf's decision to let the latest budget offering become law brings an end to a long and painful time for the health and human services community and, most importantly, for those who rely on us for support.
But it's difficult to feel any great sense of relief.
As we head into negotiation season for the next budget, there are many lessons to learn from this chapter in our commonwealth's history. However, there is one we cannot afford to ignore:
Human need takes no holiday.
And yet it was human need that found itself in the balance throughout the impasse. The nonprofit organizations on which both our most vulnerable neighbors and our elected officials rely were left to provide more services, for more clients, without critical state funding.
We may never know the exact toll the budget impasse has taken on our community. What we do know is that the damage falls into at least four categories:
Services curtailed, waiting lists created, and, worse, entire programs closed - programs that provided emergency food, support for domestic violence victims, child welfare, services for individuals with intellectual disabilities, employment supports, and mental-health services.
Cash flow problems and bills unpaid, destabilizing organizational infrastructure.
Lines of credit tapped or exhausted, resulting in millions of dollars in interest payments that won't be reimbursed.
Furloughs and layoffs in a significant employment sector, jeopardizing the stability of even more individuals and families in Pennsylvania.
The good news is that there are steps we can take to protect nonprofits against future budget stalemates.
First, nonprofits need to diversify their funding mix. Private philanthropy and strategic corporate partnership strategies can provide needed balance in economically uncertain times. Fund-raising requires talent, but the investment can have significant returns.
Second, we need to educate our elected officials about the people behind the decisions they debate. Nonprofits, especially those without staff for advocacy and outreach, can and should join coalitions to drive awareness and understanding of the needs of our communities. It is critical for nonprofits to be a constant presence in Harrisburg, so when the time comes for hard decisions, state officials understand what is at stake.
Third, a nonprofit is only as strong as its board of directors and other volunteer leaders. The importance of volunteer recruitment and relationship development cannot be overstated. These dedicated supporters oversee the strategy, stewardship, and succession planning that will keep an organization healthy for the long term.
Each of these strategies takes time, and none is a fix-all. But they are worth the effort, and United Way is here to help.
Now is the time for the health and human services community to stand together to make our voices as loud as possible.
We urge our elected officials to use the coming days to find common ground and pass a complete budget on time - one that prioritizes the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors. Otherwise, those who need our help most will find themselves caught in the balance - again.