Nonprofits play an integral role in providing services to our communities, often our most vulnerable. A article recently published on Generocity explores the prison reentry nonprofit landscape in Philadelphia. The author states, “There might be a bevy of nonprofits serving the reentry community in Philadelphia, but many do different things. Founded in 2012, the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition is a group of approximately 80 nonprofits working toward a more cohesive vision for reentry in the city.”
80 nonprofits, many of them doing “different things”, but all of them with the same goal of providing reentry services to offenders being released from jail or prison in Philadelphia. These 80 nonprofits have 80 executive directors who make $80,000 and staffs which are largely overworked, underpaid, and made to compete with other nonprofits whose mission is the same as the next.
One may be tempted to joke, “how many nonprofits does it take to change an offender’s life?”
The reentry process, though unique to each individual, is not necessarily complicated. Either an offender is released before their maximum date on parole, probation, or a diversionary program; otherwise, the prisoner maxes out and he does not need to be supervised. Regardless, these prisoners need to set up a home plan, and that home plan looks exactly like what the rest of society does everyday. These prisoners need to work, they need to secure housing, and they need to have access to health care. The difference between the regular citizen and the formerly incarcerated is that a criminal record is an obstacle to obtaining these things, so additional help may be necessary to ensure that reentry is successful.
So why are there 80 different agencies in Philadelphia all vying to help prisoners with these straightforward issues? It is likely that there are that many people who feel it is their mission in life to provide offenders help in their reentry processes. However, this excessive amount of reentry nonprofit agencies dilutes the market and makes accessing services complicated.
The nonprofit world does not function like the private market, nor should it. Nonprofits follow their namesake in that profits do not drive production or services. They rely on external funding, either through grants, endowments, or other payment structures that do not result in profit margins.
Most criminal justice nonprofits in Philadelphia rely on government grants to function. This means that the city, state and federal governments provide money to both our government criminal justice institutions (the District Attorney’s Office, courts, prisons, law enforcement) as well as to the nonprofits that provide services outside the scope of what government institutions provide.
It has been a trend for government agencies to contract work out to nonprofits, specifically with social services. Philadelphia does this large-scale; all of its social work agencies are private, and the District Attorney’s Office contracts with victim services non-profits to provide about half of the advocacy services rendered in the court system.
What this means is that government money is dispersed among nonprofits at the discretion of bureaucratic administrators. This is a fantastic thing when governments essentially save money on the quality and extent of services provided by nonprofits; however, it proves to be a problem when you have 80 nonprofits competing for the same pot of money.
Further complicating the issue are the politics inherent to this grant distributing business. In Philadelphia, the District Attorney’s Office contracts with certain nonprofits to provide services, leaving smaller nonprofits to pick up their own clients. Because of this, some nonprofits have leverage over others in terms of accessing grant money. They will also have access to some otherwise confidential information within these government systems, and often will have streamlined partnerships so that law enforcement agencies communicate participant information directly to these nonprofits without offering the participants the opportunity to choose which nonprofit would work for them.
For example, JEVS Human Services has a partnership with the District Attorney’s Office in the form of a diversionary program for nonviolent offenders called The Choice Is Yours. Because of this partnership, JEVS is more likely to receive grants made out for reentry programs. Contrary to its name, the District Attorney’s Office chooses which offenders are able to participate in this program; what it really means is that the choice to not participate in this specific program is yours. JEVS basically has a monopoly on these diversionary services, yet it still functions as a reentry program. This makes it a lot harder for those other 79 nonprofits to access grants, thus fueling the competition and polarization of the agencies.
For the offenders whose choice isn’t theirs, they are left to pick among the extraordinary amount of nonprofits who are fighting for whatever is left of funding for reentry programs.
This can be incredibly confusing for prisoners reentering the community, especially those with special needs such as addiction issues, trauma, and mental illness. Because of the wide spread of agencies, some will specialize in only one type of service. This means that a formerly incarcerated individual will have to go to Agency A for his drug treatment needs, Agency F for housing, Agency G for help with his job search, and still make time to visit the probation office twice a week. When employment and drug treatment are set as conditions of probation or parole, the diversity of agencies can serve to set the ex-offender up for failure.
This is particularly true for individuals who are channeled into new diversionary programs, set up to keep nonviolent offender out of prison. The Department of Behavioral Health, a nonprofit, runs the Forensic Intensive Recovery program (FIR), another diversionary program that offers mandatory drug treatment in lieu of incarceration. FIR has had issues with backlog and understaffing for years, so much so that calls from offenders who are ordered to participate in the program often go unanswered and unreturned. Offenders then are left without the treatment they need, and must either seek treatment themselves among the vast amount of poorly funded agencies in the city, or else slip back into addiction, violating parole and finding themselves in an even worse situation than before.
Competition in the nonprofit world does not benefit consumers the way it does in the private sector. It rewards executive directors with high salaries, but makes it more difficult for the nonprofit’s mission to be accomplished.
A conglomerate model may be the most ideal for nonprofits in Philadelphia, specifically those focused on reentry. The mission is simple and the steps to make reentry successful are straightforward. If the 80 nonprofits combined their efforts, they could receive huge amounts of funding and use it to carry out a collaborative and diversified system with well-paid employees and strong partnerships with government entities. Until then, reentrants will continue to jump the hurdles of a messy and contentious social services system, and public funds will be granted to those favored by politicians and otherwise spread thinly across many well-intentioned organizations.