Dani Robbins

Decisions and Duplications (of Service)

In Advocacy, Leadership, Non Profit Boards on April 25, 2015 at 9:39 am

The first time I was kicked under a table was in 1993 by my Associate Director at a meeting of United Way food providers. She was warning me to be quiet. It was a meeting of firsts: the first time (though certainly not the last) I was warned to be quiet; my first supervisory role; and the first time that I heard the term duplication of services.

The attendees were discussing how many times a family should be allowed to go back to a food pantry; how the city should create a master list of food providers across the city and the clients each serves to ensure people didn’t go back more than the allotted amount. In those days food pantries gave you three days worth of food.

The consensus around the table, myself excluded, was it is a duplication of services if too many food pantries gave too much food to the same people. As if it’s such a terrible thing that people would have more than enough food to eat – you know like the people sitting around that table. Or that people who go to food pantries have so much extra time in between worrying and working two jobs and making sure their kids are safe and scurrying between social service and government agencies that they could even get to a variety of pantries to overstock their shelves. It was absurd – and it also wasn’t a duplication of services.

I was 24 and it was the first time I attended this meeting so it’s possible (and I can only hope this is the case) that the meeting that proceed it discussed a dearth of food donations and the fear that if some families came back too often others would get nothing. Still, in the early 90s when computers were rare, the idea that community leaders would dedicate time and resources to map out food pantries and their clients to ensure families in crisis didn’t get more than their share would have been a complete waste of both time and resources. Plus, it was mean spirited.

There will always be people who will try to take advantage and each of us as leaders have to decide how we live our values and spend our resources. I have never felt that taking resources away from meeting our mission to ensure that no one gets more than their share is a good use of those resources. Moreover, I believe it creates a culture of distrust and I want people to feel respected. Finally, I do not believe it is, in fact, a duplication of services.

Duplication of services is when you have two agencies doing the same thing for the same population in the same area, which is usually a neighborhood but depending on the mission could be a city, county or region. For example, there aren’t usually two domestic violence shelters. There’s usually one per county or in rural counties, one per a multi-county area. There are often several child care centers and after school programs. That’s still not necessarily a duplication of services, unless they are in the same location, offering similar programming, upholding similar values and – and this is a big and- both standing half empty. If they are both half empty, it may be duplication of services. If kids are registered at both and go to each every other day, it is totally a duplication of services. If that is not happening and each is filled with different kids, they are fulfilling the needs of the neighborhood.

Multiple programs serving similar but not the same population is not duplication of services. That is meeting the needs of a community. Could those programs be run by one large agency operating in multiple locations? Maybe. Maybe not.

There is absolutely an economy of scale for large agencies and something to be said for consolidating back room functions. There is also something to be said for family choice, organizational values and different offerings.

Duplication of services is always a big discussion in any community yet it only applies when that community is financially supporting the service. No one cares if there are multiple businesses providing the same product; they’re self sufficient. We only care when the service is or is perceived to be a drain on the community’s resources. Then the question becomes if one of something is enough. One food pantry in a city would rarely be able to provide for the needs of everyone that is hungry in that city.

How many of any type of agency do we really need? Do we need faith based and non faith based agencies? I would argue that we do. Others would argue that we don’t. Choices are not a terrible thing for a family, especially a family without means.

Who decides what is and is not duplication of services? Similar to who decides what is and is not a best practice, the answer is everyone and also no one. Each donor and funder decides what they will support; each board decides the future of their organization.

That’s why it’s so important that nonprofits build their boards appropriately; that those boards understand and fulfill their roles and appropriately govern their organizations. Because it’s up to them! And we need them to be making strategic decisions on behalf of our organizations and our organizations to be making strategic decisions our behalf of communities.

What do you think? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

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