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Autonomy and Accountability: Natural Tensions of Association Member Engagement

Insights from Mark Kling, executive director of The Family Resource Center Association
October 1, 2018

As in many associations, an inherent and natural tension arises between the work of the professional association and its members.

The Family Resource Center Association (FRCA) leads a statewide network of 30 Family Resource Centers across Colorado, providing funding, training, advocacy and evaluation support to improve how member centers support local families and help them to become self-reliant. On occasion, FRCA’s work to establish and maintain standards and accountability can be challenging as member centers seek to balance the priorities of their individual organizations with the accountability and reporting for the Association.

Mark Kling, executive director of FRCA, offered his insights on how his association seeks the right balance – between instilling best practices and accountability, while also enabling the local expertise and energy of its members to lead.

Describe your members: What is a Family Resource Center?

The purpose of Family Resource Centers is to have ‘one-stop shopping’ for families needing services, many of whom don’t have transportation or other resources to find or access multiple services. Family Resource Centers provide a safe, accessible place for families to connect with comprehensive, coordinated services that help them strengthen their families and become more self-reliant.  Programs are tailored to the culture, resources and needs of the individual community and focus on building on family strengths.  It might be difficult for families that need multiple services to get all of them at once – they may not even know what those services are. FRCA member centers make sure families get the services they need.

What is the biggest challenge in engaging members?

Our approach is not for us on the Front Range to tell the rest of the state how to do it. Local centers bring the programs to their community in response to the needs of the community. As long as they’re following our Family Resource Center model of comprehensive, coordinated case management we don’t direct their local programs.

“That said, one challenge we face when engaging our members is that we can’t advocate and fundraise without shining the spotlight on their work and how we contribute to that process. Sometimes it can look to them like we’re telling them what to do, and this can sometimes feel heavy-handed. From their perspective, they are the expert in their own community, and they provide direct support to families. On the other hand, the statewide association follows research-based standards, best practices and gathers data on the effectiveness of the processes we believe are crucial to serving families and tracking progress. So there is a balance we need to strike, valuing what each of us brings to the table.             

What challenges does FRCA face in communicating externally?

One of our biggest challenges is describing what we do in a way that is short and understandable. When people think about nonprofits, they typically think of those that provide direct services. By contrast, we are an intermediary organization, working to increase awareness and provide resources to locally based centers that provide direct services. Intermediaries can help build capacity at the organizational and programmatic level and provide sophisticated data gathering, analysis and evaluation to maximize impact.  So, when I describe to some people I meet – for example, when we’re working to raise money for our member centers – a typical response might be, ‘Why not just give money to the centers?’ Again, they’re just thinking about providing direct services. The answer is that without FRCA’s support, many local centers may not be able to provide the depth of direct services they do in local communities.

“This challenge of communicating clearly about who we are and what we do isn’t limited to fundraising. When I advocate with policymakers, periodically, I’ll talk to someone who says, ‘Aren’t the services you’re offering these families helping to keep them dependent on services, so that they never have to advance?’ I say, ‘It’s a good question, but the answer is no because we’re about making families more self-reliant.’ We need to position it clearly to help policymakers on both sides of the aisle understand that we’re on the same team and that we would like to work with both of them to move families from in-crisis to stable and thriving.

Is there a common strategy that aligns your member engagement with FRCA’s external outreach?

Collaboration. To serve families effectively there has to be collaboration – both at the statewide level and at the local level among our members who need to be partnering with local groups. Understanding what makes a good collaborative partner is key because the nonprofit world is competitive. There are a lot of people telling their story, which sounds a lot like a pitch to a funder. Collaboration is a fundamentally different kind of a process where we need to figure out what we each do well and what we might be able to do together. I tell my staff at least once a month, “We want to be the partner of choice.” Because funders have choices and so do families. There’s been a winnowing of nonprofits since the Great Recession, and we want to be the one, as the field gets narrower, that people say, “They’re easy to work with, let’s partner with them.”

SE2 is marking our 20th anniversary with The Next 20,
a series exploring how communications may evolve over the next two decades.

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