I tend to take a big picture view of things, and one of my concerns with the proliferation of not-for-profit organizations has been that so many seem focused on the same needs. This becomes apparent when the requests for donations arrive by the handful in the mailbox or inbox. World Wildlife Fund, Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society. Don’t they all have very similar missions, more or less? There must be a lot of overlap and duplication of effort, not to mention reinventing wheels.
Why, I’ve wondered for a long time, don’t agencies devoted to the meeting similar needs coordinate their efforts? Shouldn’t there be an umbrella organization to keep them all connected and collaborating? Some might even wind up merging with each other, streamlining their operations as well as increasing their outreach and effectiveness.
I was delighted to discover that Saugerties resident Ruth Hirsch has developed meetings for Ulster County/regional non-profits providing social services that encourages them to network. Called Bringing Agencies Together, it’s been doing that, and a great deal more, for the past 15 years. I attended their bi-monthly meeting in April and was tremendously impressed by the agencies represented there and the possibilities for them to work together. The feeling of camaraderie and support in the room was inspiring.
At the meeting I attended, close to 50 people sat around tables in the Health Alliance Auditorium at Benedictine Hospital. They represented 20 agencies, from large to small, well-established to brand-new. All work to meet the human needs of residents of Ulster County.
One spokesperson for each agency introduced him/herself and his/her colleagues, explained briefly the agency’s mission and the population it works with, and talked about current activities and events open to the public. Coffee, tea and snacks were available during and after the formal meeting as people networked.
Hirsch, a practicing licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) and one of the founders of Saugerties’ own model Cantine Island Cohousing Community, where she lives, was assigned the role of liaison to an agencies’ networking group close to 30 years ago as part of her job at Cornell Cooperative Extension. When it became apparent that the group was simply not getting off the ground, Hirsch came to the rescue. Seeing the need for cooperation, she more or less single-handedly revived the group and has kept it going as a pro-bono project ever since. The list of participating agencies is now well over 80. Hirsch organizes and facilitates the meetings. An email list keeps the agencies connected.
The group once included agencies from Dutchess County, but they split off to form a Dutchess County branch.
Hirsch maintained the email list herself until recently, when she handed over to a colleague the job of forwarding messages from agencies to the entire list, often regarding the specific needs of one individual. She was kind enough to put me on the list so I could see how this works. In the past six weeks I’ve seen several messages from agencies that knew of a need but couldn’t meet it or whose services didn’t quite cover it. It’s a brilliant way of letting agencies know of people or groups who need their services. Agencies also are able to publicize programs to those who provide similar services between meetings.
Member agencies who send representatives to meetings include groups focused on healthcare, adoption services, Alzheimer’s support, mental health, veterans, library services, food pantries, soup kitchens, education, the environment, and other human-service needs. They range from Legal Services of the Hudson Valley to the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley, from the Ulster County executive to Ulster County Human Rights, from Planned Parenthood to the Kingston YMCA. These not-for-profits find the face-to-face meetings invaluable to their individual missions.
Beth McClendon of both Family of Woodstock and UlsterCorps emphasized the value of networking and sharing of information in matching volunteers with agencies who need them. She’s been involved with Bringing Agencies Together since 2010, a year after UlsterCorps was established. She finds that the group meetings widen everyone’s horizons. She said it helps keep her on top of who’s doing what good work in Ulster County. She noted that it’s very helpful to hear people’s projects “pitched” live instead of relying on websites.
For Kevin Quilty, vice-president of the Ulster County branch of region-wide grantor agency Community Foundation of the Hudson Valley, putting faces to organizations and understanding the specifics of their mission is one of the principal attractions of the gatherings. He noted the importance of opportunities for collaboration and non-duplication of efforts. Agencies can better understand where and how the needs of the group they serve might be better addressed, for instance by identifying underserved regions and populations. The constant presence of new faces at meetings helps keep Quilty up-to-date on who’s active in the not-for-profit community.
Victoria Langling, founder of Daily Bread Soup Kitchen, offers the perspective of one who’s been involved with Bringing Agencies Together since its early days, when only a handful of people knew about the group and attended meetings. Non-profit agency work can be isolating. For Langling, the essential thing is finding “people with the same heart” for a feeling of emotional community. People listen to each other and share information about grants, services, and needy populations. She and other food-pantry and soup-kitchen agencies used to meet, but working with other social-services areas has helped the food-pantry agencies do their work better.
Langling credits Ruth Hirsch with nurturing the organization from its humble beginnings to its current membership. She appreciates the fact that Hirsch has facilitated the meetings pro bono.
It’s quite a success story: a need recognized, filled, nurtured, and expanded into two counties. For a complete list of agencies and contact information regarding place and date/time of meetings, visit the website: bringingagenciestogether.weebly.com.
I came away appreciative and inspired by the work Ruth Hirsch does and the work all the amazing people who work in non-profit human services do in Ulster County. A new life goal came to me as I sat and listened to them. I want always to be involved in some kind of volunteer work that would make me worthy of a seat at the Bringing Agencies Together table.