Hobbled by a leadership vacuum and insufficient resources, a Palo Alto coalition that formed in 2009 in response to a string of teenage suicides is preparing for a dramatic transition.
Project Safety Net, a loose collaborative that includes officials from the city, school district, local nonprofits and mental-health professionals, is preparing to transition to a more formal structure by switching to what is known as the "collective impact" model. Under this approach, the coalition would hire a new leader, establish clear goals and metrics and become less dependent on direct support from the city.
The change was prompted in large part by the organization's recent challenges, including its inability to retain a director. In the past two years, Project Safety Net had two different directors, each of whom left after a brief stint. City staff attributes the instability to the fact that the position was provisional and offered no benefits, yet it involved a heavy workload and required specialized expertise, according to a report from the Community Services Department.
In the absence of a leader or full-time staffing, the heavy lifting in coordinating the roughly 20 agencies that make up the coalition has fallen to two city staff members: Community Services Director Rob de Geus and Minka Van der Zwaag, who heads the city's Office of Human Services. And while the team has been holding regular meetings and discussing the best ways to fulfill its mission of supporting local youth, actual accomplishments have been difficult to tally and track.
Members of Project Safety Net also say the community perceives, wrongly, that the group is a "well-resourced organization that should 'do something.'" In reality, the staff report notes, Project Safety Net is a "collaborative of partners and individuals working toward common goals."
Faced with this existential dilemma, the group recently began to consider alternative models. In April and May, a subcommittee deliberated and settled on "collective impact," which according to the report is "premised on the belief that no single policy, government department, organization or program can tackle or solve the increasingly complex social problems we face as a society."
The approach calls for each participating organization to "abandon its own agenda in favor of a common agenda, shared measurement and alignment of effort."
"Unlike collaboration or partnership, Collective Impact initiatives have a centralized infrastructure known as a backbone organization with dedicated staff whose role is to help participating organizations shift from acting alone to acting in concern," the report states.
This "backbone support" would take the form of an independent staff charged with guiding the initiative's vision and strategy, advancing policy and mobilizing resources.
Unlike in the past, the director would have a background in administration rather than social services. The Project Safety Net subcommittee considered whether the position should be embedded in the city (as past directors were), the school district or another agency and concluded that the best way forward is for the director to be part of a separate organization.
After discussing the model in February and March meetings, the Project Safety Net leadership team unanimously supported it. It didn't hurt that two members of the leadership team, Leif Erickson of Youth Community Services and school board member Terry Godfrey both have experience with this model through their nonprofit work.
One of the subcommittee's central conclusions is that the current structure is "inadequate to sufficiently hold the collaborative together and make progress on its desired outcomes."
De Geus, who has been involved in the effort since it launched in 2009, stressed at Project Safety Net's April 23 meeting that the group cannot continue without "dedicated resources and leadership." The organization, he said, needs to invest in "a structure that has a leader and can move this forward."
"We definitely don't want to start over and start planning again," de Geus said. "Some would argue (there's been) maybe too much planning and not enough action. The collective-impact model helps put the pieces together in a way that we're going to be much more effective and be able to execute on the strategies that are defined here."
Van der Zwaag made a similar point in May, when she argued that the organization needs "someone whose job every day is to come in to do the work of PSN."
The idea of spinning off Project Safety Net into a separate entity also featured prominently in the city's budget discussion. At a May 26 meeting, the council's Finance Committee considered adding a recreation superintendent to the Community Services Department. Though community members ultimately approved the position, the ongoing uncertainty over Project Safety Net gave them plenty of pause.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who voted against the new position, said she was reluctant to spend more on staffing until the city has a better idea of how Project Safety Net will be administered and funded. Councilman Greg Scharff, who supported the position, told de Geus that it's "not his job to do Project Safety Net."
"I realize you had to step into the breach, but I think you have to transition that off," Scharff said.
With the proposed switch to the collective-impact approach, the city aims to do just that. The city would still provide resources for the effort, though its involvement in the group's operations wouldn't be as direct as it is today. On June 9, the council's Policy and Services Committee will consider the proposed next steps for Project Safety Net, which include the hiring of an interim director; the completion of a "collective impact roadmap for youth well-being and prevention of teen suicides"; the establishment of an executive board for Project Safety Net; creation of a team for data collection; and an elevation of the youth voice in the collaborative.
The city's budget for fiscal year 2016, which begins on July 1, includes $487,567 for Project Safety Net and related programs. This includes $315,000 for security along the Caltrain tracks and $118,458 for a program director. As City Hall's role in the collaborative diminishes under the new model, city officials hope other groups will seize the initiative to take on greater responsibility in supporting local teens.
"The city's unwavering leadership has occasionally resulted in other organizations disengaging," the Community Services Department report states. "The perception seems to be that the workload is being handled by the city and therefore further engagement is not essential."