"It was too little, too late," the traumatized CEO told me. "By the time we realized we needed to engage and educate our local community about the work that goes on here, we were seeing the handwriting on the wall."
And thus, a 27-year-old children's home in a mid-size mid-Atlantic community has closed its doors. All 160 employees have been let go. "And the children?" I asked, hopefully. "Where will they go?"
"To foster homes or back to their families," she replied matter-of-factly. "Here we have a one-to-five staff-to-child ratio. Our children require close supervision and intensive mental health treatment at this point in their lives. We don't really know what will become of them next."
"And how are you doing through all of this?" I inquired, detecting a distinct detachment in the CEO's voice. "It's going to take us three months to shut things down all the way and right now I'm just faking it ‘til I make it—then I'm sure I will completely fall apart."
As upsetting as it was to hear this news, this was the third call like this I've had in the past seven or eight months. And certainly, over the past three to five years, I've heard at least a dozen stories like this. Children's homes have been one of the hardest hit types of organizations we work with at Benevon.
As a former behavioral health professional, it breaks my heart, makes me angry and afraid of what lies ahead for those children and for all of us.
As a fund development professional committed to sustainable funding for nonprofits, I find the closure of a well-established children's home somewhat preventable. Had the community known about and truly been engaged in their life-changing work, their challenges and local needs, no doubt the community would have rallied and at the least taken up the cause and worked for a solution.
While government funding cuts run deep in certain sub-sectors (children's homes being near the top of that list), those severe cutbacks do not have to portend the sudden death of a long-standing, vital community organization.
"The irony of it all is that things were just starting to take off with our tours. We were following your model, having 30+ people per month come in to learn about our work firsthand, hear our stories," reported the shell-shocked CEO. "So many of them had great contacts for us, advice, and money. It was a real eye-opener for them. Several had connections with our elected officials. In fact some of them were elected officials themselves. Once they saw the challenges our kids face and the level of skilled treatment we provide here, they became real champions. But it was too little, too late."
"Had we started earlier inviting the community in to our weekly ‘Point of Entry' tours, I really feel we might have prevented this. It is just so sad."
If you are the CEO of a behavioral healthcare organization, when was the last time you got out of your office and talked with someone in the broader community about what your organization does? Do you have ready examples and stories that dispel myths about your population, showcase the skilled services you provide, and clearly state what money would buy if you had more of it?
When was the last time you asked your board members to invite you into their worlds—their business networking groups, professional associations, book clubs, and faith groups, to talk authentically about the needs and challenges you are facing every day?