Why Merge? For Security and Clout

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Although big corporate mergers grab national headlines – like the recent $41 billion marriage of Cingular with AT&T Wireless – the union of two small New Jersey associations demonstrates the benefits and risks of such moves for small, youth-focused agencies.

The 19-member Garden State Coalition for Youth and Family Concerns – credited with more than 20 years of effective grass-roots advocacy – merged in September with the 36-member New Jersey Association of Children’s Residential Facilities. Their new name: the New Jersey Alliance for Children, Youth and Families.

The merger drew praise from professionals in the region, along with mild laments that the state’s singular voice for runaway, homeless and street youth will disappear.

“Overall, I do think it’s a good thing,” said Margo Hirsch, executive director of the New York-based Empire State Coalition, which contracts with the federal government to administer Runaway and Homeless Youth training and technical assistance funds in the region. Yet it’s hard to “lose an organization that was solely dedicated to runaway and homeless youth services.”

Why did it happen? After 15 years of on-and-off discussions about a merger, the organizations’ leaders decided that a unified group – with more than 40 member agencies and a combined budget of $250,000 – could team up on their increasingly overlapping issues, such as funding and licensing.

“We realized that we’re all involved with those families and with those kids,” said Anne Bradley-Sosis, former president of the Garden State Coalition and assistant executive director of the Somerset Home for Temporarily Displaced Children.

She said the new alliance can also advocate from a continuum-of-care perspective for New Jersey families on the “soup-to-nuts types of programming [they need], from emergency crisis shelters to a deeper-end service, like a residential treatment center.”

“You have a sense of loss,” Hirsch said, “but that sense of loss doesn’t detract from the sense of excitement that there’s a new energy and a new commitment, and a bigger, and therefore more stable, organization that’s going to incorporate these things into its ongoing work.”

Hirsch’s coalition funded about half of Garden State’s annual budget, by subgranting a $36,000 federal grant to provide training and technical assistance to New Jersey’s runaway and homeless youth basic centers, transitional living and street outreach service providers. That subgrant, from the Family and Youth Services Bureau in the Department of Health and Human Services, will now go to the alliance, Hirsch said. The Empire State Coalition and the alliance will also hold a joint annual conference.

The rest of the Garden State Coalition’s funding came from dues, Bradley-Sosis said. The residential facilities association’s annual budget before the merger was about $190,000.

The alliance has two paid employees; no positions were cut in the merger, and the volunteer boards of the two groups were blended into an interim board until elections are held early next year.

Risks and Benefits

One potential risk is that runaway and homeless youth advocacy will be dampened without Garden State Coalition’s dedicated attention.

After all, the coalition is credited with helping to pass New Jersey’s Homeless Youth Act in 1999, which is still funded at about $1.4 million annually. It was also instrumental in expanding the New Jersey Foster Care Scholars program to homeless kids. The program waives state college tuition for foster and other categories of youth; about 500 participants are enrolled.

“That has probably had the most dramatic and far-reaching impact on the lives of aging-out youth than any other program in New Jersey in the last 20 years,” said Kevin Ryan, who served as policy counsel to the Garden State Coalition from 1997 to 2001 and is now the commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families.

“If the Garden State Coalition had not been there, those two pieces of legislation, for sure, would never have happened,” Hirsch said.

Nevertheless, Ryan said the merger was long overdue, because it made little financial sense to have two similarly oriented membership associations doing public policy, research and advocacy work. “They had a very hard time answering the ‘Why not?’ question,” he said.

He said the size of the new group should amplify its advocacy on behalf of children.

“We’re going to fight to make sure that the runaway and homeless youth voice is heard and heard very loudly,” Bradley-Sosis said.

About 10 members of Garden State – “probably the loudest mouths for the runaway and homeless youth group,” she noted – are now with the alliance.

Moreover, the bylaws were updated to include language and a subcommittee on such coalition priority issues as homeless youth and youth aging out of foster care.

William Powers, CEO of Bonnie Brae, a nonprofit 90-bed residential treatment center for boys in Liberty Corner, N.J., says he hopes the alliance’s influence will be “stronger” on two pressing issues: adequate funding for services in the private sector, and recruitment and retention of private-sector youth workers.

State funding has left the field “struggling to keep up with cost increases” in the form of rising gas prices, insurance rates and health care, Powers said. And with the state pushing to hire new caseworkers, it is taking many of them from private agencies, which tend to pay less. The state, he said, needs “to make sure that private providers also are getting contract increases, which allow them, in turn, to give raises to their staff” to help reduce turnover.

Bradley-Sosis will serve as co-president of the alliance with Richard Mingoia, CEO of Youth Consultation Service, which provides services to at-risk children and youth, until elections are held for new officers. Richard O’Grady, who was executive director of the New Jersey Association of Children’s Residential Facilities, is the new alliance’s executive director.

Contact: New Jersey Alliance for Children, Youth and Families (609) 586-9092, www.njacyf.org.