Government on the Ropes—Nonprofits Step In

The loss of community development staff working at the City of Flint, Michigan, threatened the existence and continuity of many of its housing programs and services. Through partnerships forged among local partners, HUD, and The Cloudburst Group, Flint found a way to sustain, and even improve upon, its home repair, homelessness assistance, and youth recreation programs. How? By reshaping its administrative functions and relying on strong community partners to carry out program services.

In Flint’s Division of Community and Economic Development (CED), staff reductions caused by falling city revenues threatened its ability to administer its HUD programs, and became so acute in 2013 that the city was unable to administer its home repair program at all and was hard-pressed to process CDBG, ESG, and HOME funds for projects already in the pipeline.
HUD, which provides technical assistance to communities across the country to work through these types of complex challenges, asked Cloudburst consultants to help facilitate a strategic planning process for a task force comprised of community leaders from Flint’s philanthropic community and co-chaired by its Local Initiatives Support Corporation’s Program Officer. Several recommendations came out of this task force, which included shifting administrative and programmatic activities to partner organizations with the capacity to carry out the specific HUD programs. Meanwhile, the City retained complete oversight of HUD-funded programs, including distribution of funds, compliance, reporting, and ensuring these programs were achieving outcomes.

The nonprofit partners shared in the City’s administrative and/or program funding, and crafted the specific arrangements in ways that streamlined their own operations, utilized available staff, and/or extended their reach into the community. Each nonprofit participated willingly, finding added value for their clients and their organizations.

With the support of elected and appointed officials, we began formally reaching out to partners and developing comprehensive agreements regarding roles and responsibilities in how these programs would be carried out. The strategy of reshaping partnerships to improve service delivery is paying off. Over the past year, the initiatives have demonstrated real impact:

  • Home Repair. Staff cuts had forced the city to close its Emergency Repair program. Through a new agreement, CED transferred administration of the program to Genesee County Community Action Resource Department (GCCARD). The recrafted Emergency/Home Repair initiative assisted more than 50 low-income households with emergency repair funds in the program’s first year, and is on pace to serve as many as 65 households in its second. The program operates through a single intake process, using both Community Development Block Grant and HOME funds, and leveraging Weatherization resources wherever possible.

  • Consolidating Homelessness Assistance. Previously, local homelessness agencies received Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) funds from two different sources: the City of Flint and Metro Community Development, the local agency that administers state ESG funds. Local agencies had to deal with two sets of contract documents, different invoicing and reimbursement schedules and points of contact, and separate rules for each funding source. We transferred administrative responsibility for ESG to Metro Community Development with the net effects being (1) streamlining and accelerating invoice processing and contracts for participating homeless agencies; and (2) issuing funds (and services) far more efficiently than in the past.

  • Youth Recreation. Due to the complexity of administering CDBG Public Service funds, CED had previously awarded funds for these activities to just three large agencies, despite wanting to make youth recreation funds available more widely.  The City worked out an arrangement whereby the United Way of Genesee County applied for and received a large Public Services grant, for which it performs all administrative, fiscal, and reporting activities. In turn, the United Way used the funds to implement a simplified mini-grant program which allowed a broader group of neighborhood-based groups to receive funds and deliver youth programming. This approach brought CDBG funding to 21 organizations in the first year, reaching many more children and supporting a far broader array of recreational activities within the City of Flint.

The circumstances leading up to the funding crises—and subsequent staff losses within Flint’s Division of Community and Economic Development, are indicative of the larger problems that have plagued Rust Belt cities, but this necessary service redesign was undertaken thoughtfully and is succeeding in reshaping and improving the ways in which critical services and resources reach city residents. New partnerships have allowed CED staff to focus more on oversight and planning, while extending services to new groups of residents and agencies, and strengthening ties to the local community. Despite staff changes in some of the partner agencies, the formal agreements and protocols have allowed the work to continue without interruption.

We're sharing this story with an eye to helping other communities which are confronting their own loss of local-government staff. Flint had few choices, in that the City’s workforce was sharply cut and there was little chance of the positions being restored. The partnerships which Flint crafted are specific to that city’s circumstances; we hope our experience will help others think about ways to address their own shrinking staff resources through partnering with strong local agencies, and as a result, actually improving services for residents.

(Photo credit: Courtesy of The Cloudburst Group)

Judy Perlman is a consulting manager with The Cloudburst Group, which works with distressed communities across the United States to improve housing, homelessness, and community development programs. She has held leadership positions as a provider and advocate to the housing and homelessness community in Massachusetts for more than 20 years.


  1. Ever since working as editor with now-Johns Hopkins professor Lester Salamon at the Urban Institute’s pioneering Nonprofit Sector Project in the 1980s, I’ve been aware of the major role that private community-based organizations play in the delivery of government-funded social services. To me this story shows the synergy between nonprofits and local governments—which Salamon identified as a defining feature of the U.S. social services system— is still being rediscovered and put to use today.

  2. Thanks for this, Susan. The Flint circumstances were dire and a redesign approach was desperately needed. Happily it has worked out well! In other communities, there are opportunities for synergy that may be motivated by more positive synergies.

    My content area is homelessness, which at this point in time is a very fluid area of collective work. THE HEARTH Act requires far more community- and data-driven decision processes than ever before. The growing demands on Continuum of Care lead agencies, in terms of financial and grants management responsibilities, are contributing to widespread mergers, public/private shifts and more. A LOT goes into reshaping a service delivery system but if structural deficiencies are overcome or greater impact is truly realized, then it is worth it.

  3. Judy, I agree wholeheartedly with those who have already complimented you on this article; it’s exceptionally clear and well-written, and documents a really great outcome.

    I hope that other cities will take note, and I’d also add that even cities that are not facing budget crises can often obtain better results by partnering with expert agencies than by trying to re-create redundant programs within city government. In my years in non-profit human service management I cannot count the times I’ve seen a municipal government, properly concerned with an identified problem, use city resources to try to address the problem without first checking in with the local non-profit community to see if an existing program might be expanded to meet the need.

    Of course, the non-profit community bears some of the blame for this dynamic; we need to do a better job of reaching out constantly to our colleagues in city government to make sure that each is aware of the capabilities and limitations of the other. But in the end, both municipal governments and non-profit agencies are both answerable to the public, and should work together to meet local needs whenever possible.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.