By Lisa Kaplan Gordon
One day, you and every other human will need help. Maybe a hurricane will blow through your state, and you’ll need help rebuilding your life. Maybe, trauma or grief will become too much to bear, and you’ll need help pulling yourself together. Or maybe, really eventually, you’ll grow old, and you’ll need help staying in your home or bridging the great divide.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to afford or ask family for the support you’ll need. But if you’re like most Americans, at some point in your life you’ll need help from one of the 50-plus members of the National Human Services Assembly (National Assembly).
The National Assembly doesn’t stock an empty pantry or hand out blankets to flood victims; it supports and trains the nonprofits that do.
If you ask Lee Sherman, CEO of the National Assembly, he describes their work this way, “We’re concerned with what every member group is doing, the way it is perceived, and how it is helping to build strong communities.”
Sherman, a lawyer, has worked professionally with nonprofits for about 20 years. He served as president and CEO of the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies (AJFCA) for ten years before becoming, in 2016, president and CEO of both the National Assembly and National Assembly Business Services, Inc. (NABS).
For Sherman, working in the nonprofit human services sector is a family business. His wife, Nancy, works in nonprofit marketing; daughter, Jordan, teaches kids with developmental disabilities; and son, Joshua, performs outreach work for a Jewish community center in Washington, D.C.
“Our family has always been committed to the furtherance of a just and equitable world which is exhibited in both our professional and volunteer endeavors,” he says.
The National Assembly members include some of the biggest and most widely known nonprofits that provide human services.
“Human services is a broad term, but it’s the best term we’ve got,” says Sherman. “It can be housing, mental health, hunger, working with people with a disability, teen mentoring. It’s not just about need. It’s also about prevention services, educational services, and advocacy services, so we have systems that work better for all of us.”
The National Assembly members include:
- American Red Cross
- United Way
- Boy Scouts of America
- National Alliance for Hispanic Health
- National Council on Aging
- Boys & Girls Clubs of America
The National Assembly seeks to aid and strengthen health and human services in the U.S., “so all people can reach their potential and contribute to vibrant, thriving communities.”
Specifically, and most importantly, the National Assembly helps members:
- Reframe their message, so people understand who they are and what they do, which leads to greater support.
- Save money by tapping into PurchasingPoint, a group purchasing program that saves nonprofits 22% to 25% on everything from paperclips to car rentals.
- Share knowledge and coordinate efforts among nonprofits to advance the multigenerational approach to national policy related to human and community development.
- Model organizational diversity, inclusion, and equity.
In recent history, nonprofits have honed their “message,” then devised their “mission,” and today polished their “brand.” No matter what you call it, nonprofits spend time and money figuring out how to explain to the world what they do and whom they help.
A top priority for the National Assembly is to hold more than 50 workshops and trainings a year that help members “reframe their message” into words that emphasize communities rather than individuals.
For instance, the National Assembly staffers helped a New York nonprofit rewrite its mission statement from: “We strengthen the not-for-profit human services sector’s ability to improve the lives of New Yorkers in need.”
To: “We strengthen New York’s nonprofits human services sector, insuring all New Yorkers across different neighborhoods, cultures, and generations realize their full potential.”
“It may seem subtle,” Sherman says, “but that change breaks down the barriers between the givers and takers. If we can see that we’re all better off, if each one of us is better off, then that translates to better public understanding and public support — financial support, number of volunteers, and support for the public policies that bring about better systems for all of us.’’
Creating multi-generation policies
In the past, nonprofits and government policies have focused on ways to help individuals. Today, the National Assembly believes that human services should focus on ways to serve children, parents, even grandparents at the same time. The strategy is: Lifting each generation lifts all.
“Building family well-being and maintaining it across a lifespan is one of the most powerful ways to create the opportunity for everyone to reach their potential and fully contribute to our communities,” the National Assembly says.
That philosophy has led to the “Two-Gen” approach, a new mindset that focuses on family well-being by supporting early and elementary childhood education, economic stability, and family engagement.
The National Assembly has published several reports on Two-Gen programming and how state and federal government can help the approach become policy.
Some papers include:
- The Two-Generation Approach Framework: A Closer Look at State-Level Implementation
- Breaking the Cycle of Poverty in Young Families: Two-Generation Policy Recommendations
- Place Matters: A Two-Gen Approach to Housing
Two-Gen is a “more holistic approach to addressing the social problems people might have,” Sherman says. “You might have a 12-year-old kid who comes in with issues, but we know that if you don’t also work with his parents to get a better-paying job or improve their housing situation, the kid is going to return to an unsupportive environment.”
When we consider workplace equity, most of us think about leveling the playing field for all races and genders. When the National Assembly thinks about helping human services organizations become more equitable and inclusive, it thinks about race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and age.
“The National Assembly envisions equity as the condition in which differences among people have no influence on how they fare in society,” says the group’s equity policy statement. “This requires a continuous reevaluation of organizational norms, and a commitment to eliminating policies, practices, and systems that perpetuate inequity, so that all people are fully welcomed, valued, respected, and heard.”
Not only is greater inclusion better for individuals, it also creates:
- More effective organizations
- A positive investment for businesses
- Economic growth
Hoping to foster greater organizational equity, the National Assembly participates in several initiatives that examine inclusion challenges.
- The National Assembly is a member of the advisory committee of Equity in the Center’s movement to “create a more diverse and equitable talent pipeline so that all people in the U.S. have equal access to opportunities.”
- In 2016, the National Assembly partnered with members to explore how human service organizations can increase well-being for boys and men of color.
- The National Assembly has formed a Diversity Equity and Inclusion board task force to determine the next steps that will increase equitability in the human services sector.
“As organizations, we need to model better equity principals, becoming more diverse and inclusive,” Sherman says.
Stretching the nonprofit dollar
Every dollar a nonprofit saves on, say, paperclips, is a dollar it can spend helping people and communities. That’s the idea behind PurchasingPoint, the National Assembly’s group purchasing and discount program.
Through PurchasingPoint, which began 14 years ago, national retailers offer discounts from 22% to 25% to more than 8,000 nonprofits, saving them almost $141 million.
Retailers, including Staples, FedEx, and National Car Rental, pay the National Assembly for access to these nonprofits. This “back end” money amounts to two-thirds of the National Assembly’s $1.5 million annual budget.
Sherman says some large nonprofits that participate in PurchasingPoint save hundreds of thousands a year.
“They’re saving money on their operations, so they have more money for their mission,” he says.
Overcoming research hurdles
Until recently, following the progress of legislation concerning human services topics was unwieldy. You might have to scan several sites and set multiple Google alerts to notify you about the progress and status of bills that affect the human services sector.
In July, the National Assembly changed all that. The organization launched a new website: PolicySource.org, a data bank that collects, tracks, and communicates information about federal human services policy issues.
PolicySource organizes human services federal legislation into five main categories—youth, families, disabilities, older adults, sector-wide. Pick a sector, scan the relevant bills, select an interesting one, and view the following data:
- Overview of the bill
- Talking points about how the bill affects human services
- Related bills
- Bill number
- Date introduced
- Bill status
- Bill sponsor
“It’s a one-stop to see all that information,” says Sherman. “There’s nothing like it out there.”
The National Assembly has been a member of 501(c) Agencies Trust since 2005. Lee Sherman is a board member of the Trust. All members of 501(c) Agencies Trust have access to the National Assembly’s group purchasing program – PurchasingPoint.