12-14-23 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders

12-14-23 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders

12-14-23 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders 1200 1200 SVDP USA

As prominent Catholic theologian Kenny Rogers (just kidding) used to sing, “You got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” That’s the lesson for all of us in our government — and some foundation — relationships.  While some good examples certainly exist, many so-called funding partnerships result in exploitation, even if designed at first for the common good. We need to take another look at this relationship.

Government (local or federal) needs, or believes it needs, some service it is unwilling or unable to do by itself. Perhaps it is restricted from doing it by law or regulation. Maybe it doesn’t have the proper distribution resources, such as the reach into specific populations or communities. Lacking this startup money, talent or knowledge, it outsources work to the private sector including nonprofit organizations.  And here is where it gets interesting and dangerous.

The for-profits say “Sure, we can do that for you. But to get it done right, we need some money for infrastructure and overhead, so much for marketing, and because we are a business, we need to make a little money, too.” In the contracting game, even the lowest bidder makes a profit, sometimes at the outset or later under “contract modifications” which invariably appear later.

Nonprofits, however, usually take a different approach. They humbly respond with “We really want to help the same people you do, so we will do what it takes to provide the service. We will prove how good we are by asking for little or even no overhead costs. We will give away some of our resources that we already paid for, and whenever possible, we’ll even use volunteers so you don’t need to pay us too much! Just pay us for our direct costs, even though we probably don’t know what they are.”

With this contracting approach, it’s no wonder why they are nonprofits. They don’t even try to make ends meet.

Government may not listen when the organization hits a snag that may cost more to provide the service. “That’s your problem,” they say, “just be more efficient.” Which sounds kind of funny, coming from the government.

To make matters worse, government may then try to run the nonprofit’s business. Beyond contract specifications which are fairly included up front, sometimes government will add that “if you take our money, you need to abide by these other rules, too.” The rules may be outside of our Catholic beliefs, or what employee benefits need to be provided. There may be added costs in the hiring process or in the audit reporting that aren’t covered in the contract language but are “understood” as a condition of doing the government’s work.

The for-profits do a better job of knowing know when to ask for more or when to quit. Many nonprofits simply accept whatever terms are thrown at them because they feel so vested in the program. They then raise money to support the contract work and its “extra costs” — in effect subsidizing the government!

Lockheed Martin doesn’t run bake sales. And neither should we.

There is a growing awareness of all this by the nonprofit sector. A first step is knowing when you’re the sucker. Yet many nonprofits haven’t yet gotten to a next step of demanding change, or ultimately walking away from a bad relationship. However, there is both hope and precedent. Years ago, some local United Way application requirements and performance measures got so out of hand — combined with fewer dollars promised in return — that many established member nonprofits walked away. We need to remember this lesson of self-respect.

As the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, we have some unique strengths when it comes to potential government/funder relationships. We have boots on the ground in the neighborhoods they want served. We have a distribution network of hundreds or thousands of Vincentians, other volunteers and staff as trusted friends with neighbors in need. We can leverage resources, not the least of which is knowledge regarding the poor, to bring to the table. We have effective relationships with landlords, utilities, food and other resources that will save the other party time and money to utilize.

As Vincentians we are humble in our work and values. We aren’t asking government or foundations to help us; we ask for others who have little or no voice. It’s not the time to be humble, but to be strong in our values and abilities to be compensated fairly for the work we are asked to perform.  Otherwise, it’s time to walk away from bad contracts and bad funder relationships.  We can do so respectfully, as is our nature, standing up for ourselves and our need for sustainability to benefit the poor.

Yours in Christ,
Dave Barringer

  • Dave, can you provide us with some examples of “Bad Contracts?” Thanks.

  • Dave,
    This is very well presented and interesting. Can you give us some examples of situations like this in which SVdP is involved? Don’t reveal any sensitive info but perhaps situation examples where this would apply. Thanks

  • Dear Dave,
    After reading your comments, I am totally in agreement with your thinking. I truly enjoy your little thoughts from time to time. Although I am no longer a Vincentian, I still believe in outreach especially to those in need.
    My journey has taken me on a different path but still believe that the Lord has put us here to glorify HIS name through serving others.

    I was for about 30 to 40 years involved with the Vincentians so I understand the need for such a good group. The belief in loving others is a form of praising our creator.

    Continue with your efforts to reach out and love, and to share your resources and serve those in need.

    In Christ,
    Chanel Vachon

  • As others here before me have made inquiry, I ,too, am interested in what in particular. or what collectively has precipitated this rather targeted opinion? No objections at all with you comments, Dave, but what’s up?

  • Thanks for reading and for asking about examples. Here goes:
    1. A council operates a shelter/housing contract for local government . The government won’t pay for overhead, forcing the Society either to defer serving people in need or to raise funds to suplememt a government program.

    2. A foundation relationship started out great, with the funder supporting existing Council programs. Then the funder asked the Council for a new program, and this was accepted because it was fully funded and in the Society’s mission. Then the foundation wanted/demanded another new program that wasnt related to our work or experience, nor approved by the Council board. The funder got mad and ceased all support. Who’s running the show?

    There are others, but they are hard to describe without naming names. We need ro review every existing and new contract to be sure we know what is actually paid for and what is missing. Ask and solve before the ink is dry!

  • Thanks for bringing up this topic. Certainly, SVdP must not bow to public and private funders who thread on Catholic teachings or try to get SVdP to pay for hidden costs or intentions.

    My particular concern as a 28-year Vincention, former Diocesan Council Board member and current conference president, Is “benign” conflicts of interest in which funders/suppliers/vendors link apparent works of charity with undue influence in SVdP staffing, policy and program decisions.

    In my view, this is not so beign because it cements SVdP in the charity business; grows paternalistic dependence, and leaves the hard work of sustainable Systemic Change with meager resources.

    Systemic Change to me should go incrementally beyond the current Council, District and Conference efforts to a more forceful, more broad, more intense effort with Catholic partners to address what really is behind the persistent, historical and growing poverty in our country.

    This, to me, means unified lobbying, public participation and internal “good example” changes to increase the voting power of low income citizens; to upgrade workers through training or preexisting skills; to increase the diversity of employment opportunities in low income areas, to move gradually toward retrofitting regions, large cities and major urban areas for more human scale balance, and to systematically move away from big infrastructure projects and programs that keep the have nots away from the haves to the point that they can never increase their standard of living

    Or are we going to continue to keep providing subsistence for a population cemented in marginalization.

    If this sounds like far out social engineering, I ask you to step back to look at how we got here. My 56 years as a student of poverty using journalism, corporate public relations, state government public information duties, one undergraduate degree, two graduate degrees, and three years in a county planning department lead to this conclusion:

    Our system is based on money. Those with the most money control our system–the economy, the government at all levels; the metropolitan and municipal planning and development processes, university research, social order, and, yes, nonprofits.

    Thus we’ve had private sector-driven social engineering for centuries.

    We have had poverty for centuries and it grows as fast as as economy does.


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