Taking over the Child Welfare League of America after David Liederman retired in 1999 was never going to be easy. The gregarious and popular executive director presided over boom times of rising membership, staff and income.
But even Liederman fans felt the need for change. The CWLA had outgrown what one colleague affectionately calls his “loosey goosey” management style; it needed a detail-oriented administrator to bring order to the bureaucracy and modernize the league as it turned 80.
In stepped Shay Bilchik, a former federal juvenile justice administrator who expanded the league’s mission, pushed its youth advocacy and brought it into the 21st century. But he also presided over declines in revenue, membership and staff that prompted some of his former staffers to campaign for his removal.
Last month, Bilchik announced that he won’t renew his contract when it expires August. He said it has nothing to do with his critics.
"Ninety percent of my time at the league has been an absolute joy,” Bilchik says. “The other 10 percent of the time is like you’rerolling the ball up the hill. Right when you think you’ve got the ball on top, it rolls back down.
“I’ve been doing that for six years. … Sometimes it’s good to say, ‘Let someone else take the ball and push it.’ ”
While some former staffers and members paint Bilchik as the culprit of a CWLA demise, others say he steered the league through difficult times that were not of his making.
For Carlton Pendleton, CEO of Sweetser, a CWLA member based in Saco, Maine, the concerns about the league “come from not only the person running the ship, but they are concerns about the environment in which many of the members … find themselves. There’s been wholesale change.”
In many ways, the fortunes of the CWLA during Bilchik’s tenure reflect the changes and challenges facing the entire child welfare field. Observes Pendleton: “These are tough times.”
The New Guy
Any time someone replaces a well-liked boss, differences in personality and management style become issue No. 1 around the office. Liederman spent 15 years building the CWLA – bringing on many of its staff and members – so Bilchik’s arrival created “a very different environment,” says Mary Layton, who was communications director at the time. “Their styles were so different.”
The late Liederman is often described by his former colleagues as a “politician,” and they mean it in a good way. A former member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives who started his career as a youth worker in public housing, Liederman enjoyed networking and had a knack for making people – such as the heads of member agencies – feel that they were important to him.
He loved to preach his causes. “Nothing would please David more than to say, ‘You got an invitation to be on Crossfire,’ ” Layton says.
He showed little interest in creating detailed financial and management systems, even as the staff size doubled toward 100. “He’d say, ‘Look, if I put an organizational structure on paper, I’m going to have to fight with my staff, because someone drew one box higher than another box,’ ” Pendleton says.
“He kept a lot of the stuff in his head and just preached mission.”
Bilchik, on the other hand, had spent his career in government, where the bureaucratic lines of responsibility tend to be laid out in numbing detail. His jobs included serving as a state prosecutor in Miami under State Attorney General Janet Reno, and later as administrator of the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, when Reno was the U.S. attorney general during the Clinton administration.
That’s hardly the résumé of an introvert, but Bilchik notes, “I’m not as flamboyant as David was.”
Soon after arriving in February 2000, Bilchik started drawing boxes. In a memo to the board in May 2000, he stressed the need “to create a more coherent management structure and set of operational guidelines.” Over the following years he would create new units, shuffle staff responsibilities, oversee the league’s first strategic plan, institute better use of computer technology and set up modern financial and management systems.
“What Shay did was bring in transparency,” says CWLA board Chairman George Swan, president of the eastern campus of Michigan’s Wayne County Community College District.
He also expanded the league’s mission to include more work in juvenile justice and mental health, which meant more resources for members and collaborations with organizations that focused on those areas. These moves have won praise from many child welfare professionals, because so many of the children in their care have been adjudicated or have psychiatric issues.
But while the CWLA did all of that, the child welfare landscape was changing.
‘A Difficult Environment’
Bilchik took over 10 months before the 2000 election that gave the White House to George W. Bush and solidified Republican control of Congress – not a good turn of events for a former appointee in the Clinton administration whose new job included influencing federal policy. In his analogy about rolling a ball uphill, Bilchik was referring to “a political environment that has not been quite as friendly to the domestic agenda” of the league, as well as to the weak economy and “the nation’s attention being diverted to issues of national security” after the 9/11 attacks.
The financial struggles have been significant. For Bilchik’s critics, the numbers from CWLA’s annual reports and federal tax returns amount to an indictment of him and the board of directors. Revenues and assets are down, while borrowing under a line of credit went from zero in fiscal 2000 to $4.4 million in fiscal 2004.
Layoffs and attrition have brought the CWLA staff from more than 130 employees to 90-plus now, Bilchik says. Membership has declined from about 1,120 organizations (including public and nonprofit child welfare agencies) to about 900.
Bilchik and Swan say the numbers reflect events that were largely beyond the league’s control. Those include the national stock market drop of the early 2000s, which slashed the league’s endowment, and the shrinkage of child welfare businesses. With agencies going out of business, merging and losing income because of state and federal budget cuts, they had less money to spend on league membership, conferences and services, Bilchik says.
“It’s been a very difficult fiscal environment for our field,” he says.
Meanwhile, competition for members grew, from such groups as the Alliance for Children and Families, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that focuses on nonprofit human service providers. Some CWLA members – such as Epworth Children & Family Services in St. Louis, a founding CWLA member that left last year – switched to the alliance, while others went to the Washington-based National Network for Youth.
Epworth CEO Kevin Drollinger says he likes the league, but the alliance serves him better, and he can’t afford thousands of dollars to belong to both. “How many people do you know that have both Coke and Pepsi in the fridge?” he says.
Another blow came when the league lost a financial arrangement with the Council on Accreditation, which provides many CWLA members with the accreditation they need to get government funding. CWLA membership used to cover the accreditation fee; when the league’s deal with the New York-based council ended, some agencies saw CWLA membership as that much less valuable.
Some members and former staff, however, say what they’ve noticed most are changes at the league.
Pendleton tells a quick story that says a lot about the challenge facing Bilchik in satisfying the league’s members.
He recalls when he’d attend CWLA’s annual national conference in Washington during the Liederman era, he’d walk into his hotel room to find the message light blinking on his phone. There’d be a message from Liederman saying, “I’m gonna have breakfast at 6:30 with so-and-so,” inviting him to join them. “I never expect to hear that from Shay,” Pendleton says.
It used to “feel more like a membership organization. Now it feels more like a public policy-focused organization.”
That’s what several past and current members say: CWLA feels different. They say it focuses too much on high-end policy, Washington advocacy and collaboration, and not enough on helping them, which they see as its core mission.
“It became one of those Beltway organizations,” says Jack Downey, CEO of the Children’s Shelter of San Antonio, which left the league last year.
“I thought the league was much more interested in making money for itself” after the leadership change, says Jim Thurman, CEO of Presbyterian Children’s Services in St. Louis, which left the league after being a member for 15 years. “There wasn’t a week that went by when I didn’t get four or five mailings from the league wanting me to buy something. What I really needed was services that helped me and my business.”
On the other hand, some members praise the league’s advocacy work under Bilchik. Sharon Pierce, CEO of The Villages, in Indiana, says, “The kids served by The Villages need the voice that the Child Welfare League provides.”
The league produces plenty of support materials for members, and it still provides consulting as part of the membership fee as well as for hire.
But some members feel that the league has put less effort into helping them, and that they no longer get quick, personal responses to their inquiries. Much of that feeling has to do with the loss of veteran CWLA staffers.
“Even though David [Liederman] had left, I always had points of contact,” says Drollinger of Epworth. “I could always call Skip; I could always call Karabelle.”
That would be Skip Stuck, vice president for membership, who left last year, and Public Policy Director Karabelle Pizzigati, who left within months of Bilchik’s arrival. They are part of what members refer to as a “brain drain” of veteran staffers.
Several left in a fury, saying Bilchik had endangered the agency by focusing too much on things like mission expansion when, during hard economic times, he should have focused more on core elements like member services. (Pizzigati says she saw the league going in a different direction than she wanted in the time between Liederman’s exit and Bilchik’s arrival.)
It would be difficult to overstate the venom that some former staffers directed at the CEO and the board. “It has become increasingly painful to witness the results of your leadership,” former International Office Director Marty Sherr wrote to Bilchik. “The next exit interview to be conducted ought to be your own!”
Bilchik says he got two such letters and was unfazed, because they didn’t come from people he respects.
“Yes, it feels different. Yes, the style is different,” Bilchik says of CWLA.
He’s heard the comments from members and attributes them to several factors, such as the exodus of staff that some members had personal contact with, and “stressors” at member agencies.
During the boom times of the 1990s, he says, the CWLA’s growing size didn’t matter too much. Now, when agencies are under stress from finances and other pressures in the field, “there’s a tension around, ‘What’s the organization giving me as I struggle?’ ”
That also reflects an inherent conundrum for the CWLA. It strives to be both an advocate for children and a trade association representing its public and nonprofit members. It is not unusual for those two sides of the field to clash over priorities.
What’s important to most members, Bilchik says, are the regular, systematic communications that they get now. “I hear a great deal from members that they appreciate that there is some rigor and protocol in how we communicate with them,” he says. “It’s not just if you happen to be available for breakfast at 6:30 in the morning.”
“It isn’t the warm fuzzy organization that it once was,” Pendleton says. “But I’m also aware that the environment, the landscape, has changed. It’s not the same kind of world that it was 10 years ago.”
Despite the tough times, some 900 agencies do belong to the CWLA, including about 100 that joined over the past 21û2 years, Bilchik says.
“The league is still the standard-bearer for what practices should be” in child welfare, says Bob Cooper, executive director of the Tennyson Center for Children in Denver, a CWLA member.
Bilchik says membership and finances have stabilized, and the organization is operating “in the black.” (Its 2005 annual report is not yet available.)
This time next year, it will be operating without Bilchik. He has given the CWLA board plenty of time to find a successor – until February 2007.
“The time I’ve been here has really been a time of transition,” he says. “It’s time for me to put that energy and passion” into rolling other balls up other hills.
“I think it was a good decision on Shay’s part to move on,” says Cooper, who served on the national board of directors early in Bilchik’s tenure. “He recognized that ‘I’ve done what I can do here. There seems to be a groundswell of upset about what’s going on.’ ”
The league, he says, “probably just needs a fresh face.”
Contact: CWLA (202) 638-2952, www.cwla.org.