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Prevention or Cure - Leaders Decide

The overcrowding of jails and the need to address social problems are public and nonprofit conversations mirrored in nearly every county in which I consult. Ironically, in those same communities, countless nonprofits can help, and yet they continue to bear local funding cuts and are denied new requests. Why?

Perhaps public entities should consider nurturing the countless nonprofits focusing on preventative programs. Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” However, it appears many in leadership positions have forgotten that cliché or lost faith in its validity. Some feel it’s not the role of public entities to help fund the work of nonprofits, but rather donors in the private sector. However, wise public investments can minimize public sector expense. In many of these counties, there’s just not the right dialogue taking place to address issues, or when the most valuable conversations take place, they do so in silos. The prevention-to-cure link isn’t being made, cultivated, or considered.

A nonprofit agency shared the story of their staff being brought to tears when a former service recipient returned to thank them more than a decade later. Earlier in life, that service recipient had been on a path placing them at the cusp of the juvenile justice system. However, the staff and leadership at the agency mentored them, provided them programming and advice to right their course, and more. That same service recipient returned, now a self-supporting, tax-paying adult, stating they were serving in the military and they were recently accepted into medical school. They testified that neither would have happened, had the agency not set them straight and provided the support they needed. Imagine what the public-sector expenses would have been, had a nonprofit not intervened? There are certainly thousands more of these stories across the Nation and changing lives should be what social service is all about, but they need the funding to do it.

It’s obvious local communities struggle with how to pay for multi-million-dollar projects, be it a jail, halfway house, transitional center, transportation, etc. Each day, another City or County is seeking to increase taxes to implement a “pound of cure.” To advance the supposed cure, they frequently cut the “ounce of prevention,” which proves to be short-sighted. So where is the disconnect? I’d suggest five main concerns and concepts need to be addressed to ensure increased value and return on investment for all parties.

1) Constructive Dialogue – Communities need to broaden their approach to solving these issues and bring in multiple segments of the community to discuss options, concerns, ideas, and dreams. They may find surprising resources locally to help offer solutions that have never been on the radar. This dialogue also helps to build trust between the leaders and the agencies.

2) Agreement on Outcomes - Expected outcomes are not communicated to the nonprofit, yet leaders will criticize nonprofits because they “didn’t ________” (fill in the blank) or withhold funding because of “x.” Open lines of communication need to be established for the benefit of the community and to clarify expectations relative to outcomes.

3) Requests for Proposals – The problems are obvious, but the solutions are not. Once the dialogue has led the community to an accurate assessment of the situation, and there is an agreement on desired outcomes, the community can offer an RFP (Request for Proposal) encouraging creative and practical solutions to the identified problem. This needs to be accompanied by a pool of funds to back it. This seems rather basic, because governmental bodies practice this for other investments, so why not these? In their study, "Demonstrating the Value of Social Service Programs: A Simplified Approach to Calculating Return on Investment," authors Baum, Gluck Smoot and Wubbenhorst, suggest the use of a PROI (Program Return on Investment) form, that calculates and monetizes returns. I’d suggest this valuable tool be a required part of the submitted proposal.

4) Dedicated Prevention Funding –Funding must be dedicated to the prevention side of social problems for communities to achieve success. Leaders must recognize this is a longer-term solution that can run concurrently with their commitment to solving the current crisis. If they do not dedicate this funding, they will be mired in the crisis mode, and the cycle will continue to repeat itself into future generations. Efforts of nonprofits can provide intangible benefits that supplant other expenditures resulting from inaction. For example, funding for transportation may keep the population employed, adding to the tax base and lowering the need for benefit programs.

5) Move from “Doing” to “Did” – Nonprofits need to become more adept at developing requests, less based on “they are doing” to “what they did.” The difference? The latter is more outcomes focused, more statistical, more personal, more relatable and more businesslike. They need to educate leaders, show how they have made a difference and how they will provide a valuable return on the investment – which relates to the PROI mentioned previously.

In the end, it’s time for both sides to become more future-focused and realize some short-term pain for long-term gain. Instead of the nonprofits and their potential funders widening the divide and “wonder” that grows between them, it’s time to get together and create a new future with more teamwork, more accountability, and impact.


Baum, Herbert M.; Gluck, Andrew H.; Smoot, Bernice S.; and Wubbenhorst, William H. (2010) "Demonstrating the Value of Social Service Programs: A Simplified Approach to Calculating Return on Investment," The Foundation Review: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 4. DOI: Available at:

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