InnVision, Santa Clara County's leading homeless agency, has merged with Shelter Network of San Mateo, the two agencies announced Tuesday, July 10.
The merger marks a trend since the economic recession of 2008 for nonprofit organizations to reassess their roles and to forge new partnerships and collaborations in order to survive. Donations plummeted after the economic crisis, and many organizations have not been able to recover, heads of foundations and nonprofit groups have said.
InnVision formed in 1974 and has been Silicon Valley's largest provider of homeless services. It had a roughly $7 million budget and served 29,000 people who were homeless, at risk of homelessness and low-income at 25 facilities. Services include housing and counseling at the Opportunity Center in Palo Alto and food and clothing closets. Approximately 4,000 to 6,000 people receive shelter annually.
Shelter Network serves 4,600 clients in San Mateo County through six facilities with an $8 million budget. Founded in 1987, the majority of its clients are families and veterans.
With the merger, InnVision CEO Christine Burroughs is retiring after 24 years. She will remain as a consultant for some time, she said. She announced her departure to about 50 major donors in a June 22 letter. Shelter Network CEO Karae Lisle will run the merged agency.
Burroughs said she approached Shelter Network last fall to form a new entity, which would incorporate both agencies' programs and ideologies.
"It was a combination of factors. I decided it was time to step down. I felt with the economy being what it is, it would be better to partner. ... I'd like to do something a little less stressful," she said by phone last week.
InnVision had been struggling for some time since the 2008 economic crisis. Net assets for the years ending June 30 dropped $220,672 in 2008, rose slightly in 2009, then plunged $626,188 in 2010 and by $1,011,862 in 2011, according to financial statements. An independent auditor, did not find any deficiencies in InnVision's financial reporting.
Burroughs offered perhaps a prescient outlook on InnVision's future in May 2009 during an interview:
"I'm on pins and needles, to tell you the truth," she said.
On April 30, 2011, the organization closed the Clara-Mateo Alliance homeless shelter on the grounds of the Veteran's Administration Menlo Park campus because of lean economic times, she said then. The shelter offered transitional housing for families and single adults, and 67 percent of the single residents were veterans.
Lisle said the merger offer came at a time when Shelter Network was looking to increase its bed capacity. More than 50 families with two to three children and more than 70 individuals are turned away every night for lack of space, she said. Those numbers are the average for the past two years, she said. Low-income wage earners such as two persons making minimum wage can't afford an apartment here, she said.
San Mateo County provides families with children with a hotel voucher if there is no room at a shelter, she said. But that does not forward the goal of getting them in a stable environment and into permanent housing. The merger will allow more people to quickly gain access to shelter and housing at a fraction of the cost, Lisle said.
"With more than 18 major facilities, we can increase the capacity of the people we serve by three-fold. ... We don't have to start from scratch," she said.
Philosophically both agencies are similar, she said. Both have a no-tolerance policy for drug and alcohol and offer comprehensive services such as counseling for drug and alcohol addiction and for jobs and help for people with mental illness.
Both InnVision and Shelter Network serve approximately equal numbers of homeless families and single adults in emergency/transitional housing programs. Approximately 60 percent of clients are families, and of those more than half are children under age 18. Roughly 40 percent of transitional clients are single adults, said Communications Manager Maria Duzon.
Lisle said the two organizations differ in some ways. InnVision charged fees for shelter. The new organization offers shelter at no charge. The merged agency will instead use Shelter Network's "Beyond the Bed" program, which includes counseling, job assistance and child care, and even taking clients to and from job interviews.
Clients must work toward an education, job and saving 50 percent of their budget to break the cycle of homelessness. More than 90 percent of families graduating from the transitional programs find and maintain permanent housing in about 120 days -- less than half the national average. InnVision client stays were slightly over the national average of 232 days, she said.
Lisle said she plans to hire 10 to 20 more caseworkers to manage the large caseload; InnVision laid off some of its caseworkers during the economic downturn. There are no planned staff layoffs or program closures.
Palo Alto services are not expected to change, she said. The agency has just renewed a contract with the Opportunity Center for another five years.
The City of Palo Alto only recently learned of the merger, although no policy issues were discussed, said Minka van der Zwaag of Palo Alto's Office of Human Services.
"We're definitely interested in (the homeless program's) continued success and are looking forward to working with InnVision Shelter Network to make that happen," she said.
The merger did not come as a surprise to leaders at the nonprofit Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which has provided grants for InnVision programs.
"We were aware that the merger was happening," said Erica Wood, vice president of community leadership and grant making. She said the foundation has focused on funding food and housing programs for the last few years.
In 2008 the foundation held a conference that predicted many nonprofits would look for new partnerships in order to survive.
Porcia Chen Silverberg, executive director of Thrive -- The Alliance of Nonprofits for San Mateo County, a membership organization for nonprofit groups, said the nonprofit financial crisis is not over.
When the recession started in 2008 safety-net service providers such as InnVision received boosts from donors to help close funding holes, she said. But in the last couple of years people have been pulling way from giving.
Silverberg said she did not know whether that was because funders are no longer able to donate or because they perceive the need isn't there any longer as the economy has improved, she said.
"It's not getting better any time soon, even though the economy is getting better and starting to turn around. It's just like city governments. You see fire departments are merging between cities. Funding is being cut in every direction," she said.
Silicon Valley Community Foundation is also the product of a 2007 merger. It formed from Santa Clara County-based Community Foundation Silicon Valley and Peninsula Community Foundation in San Mateo County.
CEO and President Emmett Carson said last February that it took time to build trust back among donors that the merged foundation would still serve the projects they supported. Lisle said she is aware of that challenge for InnVision Shelter Network and has taken care to address donor fears.
Silverberg said although many people see nonprofit mergers in a negative light, "I see this as a more positive one. Their missions align pretty well."
One of the biggest challenges is creating one board of directors out of two organizations. Board members are deeply passionate about their own organization, and sometimes boards can't reconcile those differences. That's a big reason why mergers can fail, she said.
"That these two boards are willing to come together -- that says a whole lot to me about this merger," she said.
Dan Coonan, InnVision board president, said he supports the merger.
"I firmly believe this is a match made in Heaven -- perhaps literally. I think the two organizations complement each other so well. The further we explored the merger, the more we felt that to be true.
"I have enormous respect for both Christine Burroughs and Karae Lisle. Karae is absolutely the perfect person to carry on the tremendous work Christine has been doing for decades in this area. I am very excited about the future with this combined organization. It is a very good day for this critical cause in the Bay Area," he wrote in an email.
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