New York Nonprofit Press: The Settlement House Movement Resurgent

Feb 29, 2012 |

Michael Zisser, University Settlement's CEO, and Nancy Wackstein, Executive Director of United Neighborhood Houses of New York, wrote an OpEd that was featured in the March 2012 issue of the New York Nonprofit Press. Read their thoughts on the strengths of the enduring settlement house movement!

Click here to read the Op-Ed online or scroll down!


New York Nonprofit Press
February 23, 2012
The Settlement House Movement Resurgent

The recently announced demise of Hull House in Chicago, the iconic image of the settlement house movement in this country, was both a surprise and a loud call for reaffirming the powerful role settlement houses and neighborhood centers play across the country. It is also a cautionary tale about the issues confronting the stability and success of the non-profit human services sector, not only in Chicago but across the nation.

The right story to tell is not about the unique issues confronting Hull House, which may never be fully known to the public, but instead about the incredible inventiveness, creativity, innovation, efficiency and effectiveness that has characterized the settlement house movement in recent decades. In New York City, there are now more than 37 independent settlement houses and community centers, which make up the membership of United Neighborhood Houses of New York. These  non-profit organizations serve more than 500,000 people each year across the five boroughs, operate from more than 400 sites, employ more than 10,000 staff, and have an aggregate budget from a combination of public and private sources that exceeds half a billion dollars each year.   UNH members are major employers in their communities and in many cases are significant economic engines, as well, through their purchase of goods and services.  

These are not just dull statistics. These facts affirm and verify the steady growth of a social infrastructure and community support system that has deservedly earned the trust of government agencies, the philanthropic sector, and, most importantly, the people we serve. As the definition of a settlement house has evolved over the past 125 years, the critically important values and principles articulated by Jane Addams and other early leaders that define what we do have not changed. Settlement houses are deeply embedded in the communities they serve and represent. Their programs and activities are guided by and built on the strengths of the local residents and the resources they bring to the community. Staff are profoundly committed to working with neighbors – not just providing services to them - to ensure that all people have a voice in shaping their futures. And they deliver a comprehensive array of important programs responsive to the diverse and ever-changing needs of communities, especially here in New York City.  Had settlement houses failed to adapt to changing populations, needs and communities, they today would be historic relics.  They are not.

While some settlement house programs are not significantly different than what would have been found in the late 1800s, many other programs offered today acutely reflect the issues and challenges of the 21st century.  In l886, University Settlement, located on the Lower East Side and the oldest settlement house in the country, offered child care focused on social and educational development; adult literacy leading to better job possibilities; assistance to immigrants trying to find success in a strange new environment; advocacy for improved public services and quality of life; access to health and wellness resources; and workforce training and English classes to ensure acquisition of skills necessary for a better future. Today's settlement houses  have started charter schools, revolutionized after-school programs, developed and operate supportive and low income housing, serve victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, manage community centers as living rooms open to residents and other organizations, and conduct all forms of cultural enrichment. In many urban areas, settlement houses are THE paramount symbol of what we now call community building and they are the most important anchors in many low income communities. And we should not forget that this is still a country of immigrants pursuing the same aspirations as their predecessors in previous centuries, and needing the same support as they seek to become fully integrated in American society.  

The Hull House story dramatically illustrates that the essential partnership between the non-profit sector and the public and private sectors does not always work the way it should. When non-profits are too dependent on government-funded contracts, which in fact do not pay the full and real costs of delivering quality services, then sooner or later the economic model will fail. It is to the credit of the non-profit sector that it survives as well as it does by finding efficiencies where none exist, but especially in a recessionary period when there are few places left to turn for relief.

It is not unusual for non-profit organizations to have as much as 85% of their gross income come from government contracts since government has chosen places like settlement houses through which to "privatize" the delivery of many services.  However, when non-profits do go out of business, many vulnerable people do not receive the services they need, and government's obligations and goals are not met. When the private sector - individuals, corporations, foundations - does not adequately support human service and other non-profit organizations, then these organizations will not have the flexibility, financial stability, and vital capital needed to fulfill their missions. Settlement houses rely on generations of generous donors to support their core operations and occasionally to allow for risky but essential program experimentation, but few organizations have the ability to weather difficult times or persistent cash flow problems when grappling with under-resourced government contracts and late payments.

Hull House may be a cautionary tale, but it is most definitely not the story that characterizes the dramatic expansion and success of the settlement house movement in New York City in recent decades. We have survived and flourished for over l00 years because we have been constant in our core values, have taken organizational and program risks to remain relevant and strong, have managed the delicate and always challenging balance of multiple funding sources, have found extremely dedicated Board members and excellent staff, and have continually adapted our programming to respond to changing community needs.  Most importantly, families and communities across the country have recognized and relied on the strengths that the settlement movement has brought to their lives. A sad story in Chicago only reinforces the power of amazing stories in so many other places.

Michael Zisser is CEO at University Settlement.

Nancy Wackstein is Executive Director, United Neighborhood Houses of New York.


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