Minnesota social service agencies trying to do more with less

Increase in client needs, United Way survey

More clients, more issues, more stress, and more “intense” issues, with less resources, lower budgets and no prospects for better days – that’s the report from a sample of 89 Minnesota social service agencies, according to a survey released today by the Greater Twin Cities United Way. Overall, 74 percent of the agencies said they saw more clients in 2009 than in 2008. In a similar survey in 2009, 63 percent of agencies reported an increased number of clients during the past year.

Who are the clients?

Agencies most commonly said they are seeing more unemployed clients (73%). More than 4 in 10 agencies indicated they are seeing more clients who are unfamiliar with the social service sector (48%), more clients without healthcare insurance (47%), more middle class clients (46%), more immigrants (44%), and more families (42%).

More intense issues mean that staff must spend more time with each client, and more clients means that the individual caseloads are increasing. At the same time, agencies are losing resources. Four out of five agencies reported losing revenue from at least one source in 2009. While some made up lost revenue with federal stimulus dollars, fully 40 percent of the agencies reported a smaller budget in 2010 than in 2009.

As the agencies are trying to meet increased client needs with decreasing resources, they are asking the same of staff. According to the report, here’s how they dealt with decreasing resources:

In 2009, agencies most frequently implemented salary freezes (53%), layoffs (40%), and hiring freezes (30%) to balance their budget. In addition, reduced staff hours (28%) or eliminated some programs or services (26%). (United Way survey, p. 8)

A December 2009 survey of 639 organizations by the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits found similar numbers, with 32 percent of organizations reporting layoffs, 52 percent reporting hiring or salary freezes, and 25 percent reducing employee benefits.

According to Elizabeth Peterson, who is in charge of research and planning at United Way, most of the agencies in the United Way survey provide services such as

food shelves, meal programs, homeless shelters, job-training programs, domestic violence shelters and services, dental services for low-income children, health screening for children (e.g., vision, hearing, asthma), community clinics, home chore services for elders, assistance for children and adults with disabilities, childcare and preschool services, home-visiting programs for parents of young children, tutoring programs to help kids read at grade level, and out-of-school-time programs.

The survey covered a wide range of agencies. Responding to an email question, Peterson said the budgets ranged from less than a million dollars annually to $52 million.

The majority (59%) have budgets between $1 million and $10 million. Nearly one-quarter (23%) have budgets over $10 million, and 18% have budgets less than $1 million.

The only bright spot in the survey is an increase in volunteers, reported by 61 percent of the agencies responding to the United Way survey. Only four percent saw fewer volunteers, with the rest remaining about the same. The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration also reported an increase in the number of people volunteering. There’s a downside to the increase in volunteers.

The increase seems to be primarily driven by unemployed people who became interested in volunteering; 72% of respondents indicated that is a reason inquires were up. … The change in who is volunteering was cited as both a challenge and an opportunity. The opportunity is volunteers with increased capabilities; the challenge is in designing new positions and shorter-term volunteer opportunities. One person commented, “The volunteers want less of a commitment because they are unsure how their life will be changing.” (MAVA report, p. 4)

While more volunteers can mean more help in maintaining programs and meeting the increased needs of clients, sometimes that is not enough.

Comments reflected the severity of some situations.  One person reported, “No money, no staff. No staff, no steering the ship or accountability. No accountability = confusion and dropping the ball. Volunteers leave. Program dies.”  Another person said, “I can’t keep up.  I feel like I’m neglecting people.  It makes me feel real lousy and inefficient.  This isn’t just burnout, it often feels more like just plain failure.  I’ve done this for years now and I feel I should be doing better but I can’t keep up.” (MAVA report, p. 8)

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