About a month ago, we wrote a column for Route Fifty about a dramatic transformation in the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS).
The change, which has taken place under the leadership of Human Services Cabinet Secretary Justin Brown, was simple and surprisingly powerful and it’s helping Oklahoma to more effectively use state dollars to serve people in need. It can be replicated in other states, as long as non-profits, foundations and government agencies are open to productive collaboration.
We were so thoroughly intrigued by the singular changes in Oklahoma that we wanted
to give you some more insider insights into the way they’re working. To that end, here’s
an edited interview with Sarah Roberts, vice president of programs at the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation. She is one of 16 members of an advisory committee assembled by Oklahoma’s DHS to provide insight and advice on how to invest $100 million of reserve fund dollars that had accumulated from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF). The interview was originally done for the Route Fifty column.
B&G: What was your role, as a representative of a foundation, on the advisory committee that you were asked to join in 2021?
Sarah Roberts: We were involved in assisting the Department of Human Services in rethinking how to better distribute TANF dollars throughout the state. There was a backlog of those dollars that had built up prior to Secretary Brown taking over as director of the Department of Human Services. I believe this happened nationwide. It wasn’t exclusively in Oklahoma. It was a lot of work to figure out how to line up nonprofits, which are already doing amazing work with TANF eligible clients, with those TANF dollars.
B&G: Could you help us to understand why this partnership between Oklahoma foundations and the Department of Human Services was so important?
Sarah Roberts: We’ve always prioritized public-private partnerships at Inasmuch Foundation and in Oklahoma. We are hyper-aware that philanthropy just doesn’t have the dollars that government has and so without public-private partnerships, it can sometimes be hard to have synergy and longevity for great initiatives.
B&G: We know that you work with many nonprofits. Can you explain a bit more about the impact that better communications had on them?
Sarah Roberts: I think that, at times, nonprofits can be intimidated by government and that’s sometimes been a barrier to accessing public funds. Some of them have never dreamt of applying for funding through government. Secretary Brown has been willing to listen. He has brought nonprofits to the table in a way that hadn’t been done before on such a large scale. That has resulted in mutual trust being built. It has also pushed nonprofits to get stronger in terms of compliance because they have a clearer sense of the reason for some departmental/federal rules.
It took a while for foundations and nonprofits, to stop thinking about this as Big Brother State Government and realize it is a funder which is wrestling with how to solve community problems as efficiently as possible.
B&G: What were some of the insights that foundations like yours were able to give to the Department of Human Services?
Sarah Roberts: I think some of it is just recognizing that a wide variety of nonprofits exist. In the past there were nonprofits that received ninety-nine percent of their funding from the government. They didn’t know anything about private funders because they’d never done anything but be funded by the government.
Then there are other nonprofits that are intimidated by the government. They are looking to the private sector to fund everything and it probably would be better if both groups were a little more open to public/private partnership. We didn’t really have any traction on this until Secretary Brown arrived and he was receptive to that conversation.
B&G: Has that situation changed?
Sarah Roberts: I think what Secretary Brown has done beautifully is listen and send a coordinated message that we could probably strengthen all of these nonprofits if we gave them a little bit more balanced funding, with some from the government and some private funding and due diligence in both scenarios to make the nonprofits stronger.
DHS clients are already working with nonprofits so it is a wonderful way to meet families where they are in their own communities.
B&G: Is there an example that you can give us of a program that is now getting new funding through this new kind of partnership?
Sarah Roberts: There are two programs in Oklahoma that have similar missions. They are trying to divert mothers with children from prison. The program in Tulsa is called Women in Recovery and in Oklahoma City it’s called ReMerge. Both provide housing, job training, substance abuse and mental health treatment. Women are able to gain job skills and become employed. This has been incredibly successful. More than 500 women, who have graduated, are working, contributing, tax-paying citizens and present in their children’s lives. Alternatively, they would be serving an average sentence of 10 years in state prison.
B&G: We’ve heard from your peers and individuals involved in community organizations that the kind of partnership that’s evolved in the Department of Human Services has been happening elsewhere in Oklahoma government.
Sarah Roberts: I think many of the Cabinet secretaries feel charged with interacting with us in a way that wasn’t top of mind in previous administrations because they didn’t have a governor who was stating that as a goal.
Many of the cabinet secretaries have served in the private sector and get the value of public-private partnerships. They’ve been involved with philanthropy either by being philanthropists themselves or being parts of nonprofit boards. I think there is a real love and respect for the nonprofit sector among some of the current cabinet secretaries.
B&G: Any final comments?
Sarah Roberts: We’ve been promoting the benefits of Public-Private Partnerships for years prior to anyone listening. It’s been really exciting to watch other people get on fire with this idea, see the value and watch it play out beneficially for vulnerable families in our communities.