SJ-R Column – Funding uncertainty quiets stories of hope

As originally published in the Our Towns section of The State Journal Register.

For many nonprofit organizations the start of the New Year brings a fresh perspective, hope for the future, and a renewed commitment to better serve our communities. This means that many organizations’ best ideas come from planning at the beginning of the year when its staff explores new ways of delivering services and raising awareness. Unfortunately, many of the successes of the past year and ideas for the future are being overshadowed by a topic which has dominated the conversation for more than a year.

Last week, just before the start of the New Year, the calls began. First it was a television station… then the radio… then a newspaper… now another television station… and once again the newspaper. Each of these media outlets was asking the same question: What and How.

What are human service agencies doing to prepare for the lack of a state budget?

How has Illinois’ budget situation affected local organizations?

What has been the impact of reductions in funding and now the uncertainty funding been locally and statewide?

How are human service organizations going to offset losses in state funding?

How is this affecting our community?

For more than a year, these are the questions that local organizations have been asked. Sadly, the questions and answers haven’t changed much, because our state’s budget situation is a disaster. There is no denying the situation we are in. There is no avoiding the reality that our state’s leadership has failed to meet its most fundamental financial obligation of passing a budget. Regardless of political party, there is plenty of blame to go around and a widespread failure to compromise. In more than a year, little has changed and information local organizations want to share has simply been overlooked.

What nonprofits want to share are the stories of hope – the success stories – about how they are improving lives and strengthening our community. What our community should be hearing is how our local organizations are making a difference, not what is being lost due to funding uncertainty. Ironically, in talking with so many of local reporters, they want nothing more than to see a shift in the conversation; a shift from talking about lost services to talking about results.

For instance, domestic violence shelters throughout the state are stuck talking about closures and losses of domestic violence services due the budget mess. Domestic Violence shelters just recently learned that funding for FY17 was left out of the stopgap budget and that there would be no reimbursement for contract services until a new budget is passed.

So while all of us are forced to discuss dollars, closures and loss of services, we overlook the true impact of these organizations. We aren’t hearing the stories of the 131 adults and children who received shelter services through Sojourn Shelter and Services during the first quarter of the fiscal year. We aren’t hearing about the client who suffered five years of countless acts of physical, emotional and financial abuse before finally finding the courage to call the 24 hour hotline and seek shelter from her abuser. We aren’t hearing about how Sojourn was able to provide immediate shelter, and the personal items she needed (clothing and hygiene items) so that she wouldn’t have to put herself in jeopardy by trying to retrieve these items from the home. We aren’t hearing about how Sojourn was able to provide employment assistance, help with transportation, and resources to help her rebuild her life. We aren’t hearing about the steps this courageous person has taken to rebuild her life and the quality services making this possible.

This past year, the conversation surrounding nonprofits has been limited to service cuts, layoffs and a lack of hiring. However, behind every number you hear is the story of an individual whose life has been changed by these organizations. Behind every number is an organization striving to improve the quality of life for people living in our communities.

While we can’t change the seemingly endless conversation about our state’s budget mess, we can make a commitment to take every opportunity we can to share the wonderful work being done by local agencies, how they are working together to tackle our communities greatest challenges, and how they are creating measurable change in the lives of our neighbors.

Shame on our governor, legislature and leadership of both parties; and thank you to the hard working men and women providing social services to those in need during a time of incredible uncertainty.

John Kelker is the president at United Way of Central Illinois. Look for United Way columns weekly in Our Towns.