Two nonprofits merge to better meet needs of the poor


Ask Liz Kuoppala whether it’s the economy or the need for more clout that’s propelling her social service organization’s upcoming merger and she’s hard-pressed to make a distinction.

Really, she’ll tell you, it is both the significant need of Minnesota’s poor as well as the need for a more commanding profile in this challenging economy that is leading to the marriage of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless and the Affirmative Options Coalition.

Simply put, the advocacy groups realize they share a similar vision and mission.

In that, the groups are like many other service nonprofit organizations in Minnesota that have merged since 1999, according to an interesting study, “Synopsis: Success Factors in Nonprofit Mergers,” released in July by MAP for Nonprofits and the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

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A shrinking-funding climate was one motivation, but not the primary one, Kuoppala told me. Rather, there is the need to serve a broader clientele.

What both coalitions realize, says Kuoppala, who grew up poor herself, is that “homelessness isn’t the problem. It’s the result of other problems and the only way to really end it is to resolve [those] other problems….

“We recognize we need to move upstream,’’ says Kuoppala, who now heads the coalition of homeless service providers and will also lead the new organization.

“We also think the clients we represent are the same, some in deep poverty and some on the edge of that. It makes sense to streamline and develop comprehensive services,’’ she says.

Almost 11 percent or 544,000 Minnesotans qualify as poor, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The federal government in 2012 defines as poor a family of four living on about $23,000. Add in the so-called “near poor,’’ those who make up to just twice that amount, and the latest American Community Survey estimates the needy in this state at 1,425,000.

Forty-one percent of the homeless were employed in 2006, before the economic recession, Kuoppala says. “Now, a lot of Minnesotans are not doing well at all. There is a lot of urgency to do something and that urgency is causing us to work harder at doing things smarter,’’ she says.

Low-wage workers, she says, have no budget room for a crisis, like a car breaking down or a child becoming very ill, which could put them on the street.

Right: Liz Kuoppala

We’ve seen the numbers of homeless climb. Though Minnesota is due this October for another homeless count coordinated by Wilder Research, the numbers in 2009 had increased by 22 percent from the previous count in 2006.

The homeless coalition — 150 homeless service providers around the state, including non-profit and government – has tended to focus on people already homeless, while Affirmative Options, with its 50 member organizations, worked on trying to preserve a safety net to prevent individuals and families from ending up homeless.

Still, Kuoppala says, the organizations worked closely together on many issues, including legislative efforts, another success factor in the aforementioned study.

“We think we’ll save dollars down the road by helping people before they become homeless,’’ Kuoppala says, pointing to successes in Hennepin County. Their homeless prevention program costs $600 per family. Housing a family in an emergency shelter for a year would cost $30,000, she says. (Reality check here. Isn’t it highly unlikely a family would be housed in an emergency shelter anywhere for an entire year? I asked her. True, she says.)

The homeless coalition operates on a $350,000 annual budget, paying salaries as well as spearheading an annual conference and weekly “best practices” conference calls on topics, such as homelessness and mental health problems, transitional housing and the health needs of homeless persons. The Affirmative Options budget is about $90,000, she says.

Officially the merger is expected by early next year. The new entity may be called the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless or something different.