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Sign Me Up for Wraparound Supportive Services, But First Tell Me What Those Are

Most social and human services get delivered in one of two ways: on a drop-in basis or a case-managed basis. The latter is often characterized as “wraparound supportive services,” and is the subject of this post. If you’ve ever been to a Boys and Girls Club or YMCA, you’ve received services on a “drop-in” basis, which means you usually don’t have someone reminding you to do things or recommending that you do them. In high school, I’d swim and practice Tang Soo Do at a YMCA, and taking punches (with padding!) made me want to return for more. Note that we don’t recommend this approach for most drop-in programs unless you have an unusual audience in mind.

The alternative involves wraparound supportive services, which are intended to help an individual or family achieve some overarching goal by offering a suite of services over a period of time, based on needs identified through a comprehensive assessment. The basic idea behind Talent Search, for example, is to make sure that at-risk youth with college potential actually go to college. One could theoretically run a Talent Search program on a YMCA-style model, where you offer academic enrichment, PSAT and SAT prep classes, college tours, life skills training, and what not to whoever happens to wander past the school library that day. But most offer wraparound supportive services instead.

Why? The problem is that many high school students are like I was: indifferent. They’ll see a flyer or be told by a teacher they should do Talent Search program. Then they go home and play computer games or smoke pot or whatever and forget about all this Talent Search nonsense because Halo 3 is more immediately satisfying, while college, if it’s visible at all, is off in the blurry distance.

Colleges, of course, like forward planning and high GPAs, so if you want to go to a four-year school, waking up in October of your senior year isn’t going to help you much, even if you’re smart and have a lot of potential. I spent most of my first two years of high school not doing much of anything for no particular reason. Students like me (back then) won’t by and large spend much time in drop-in programs, which sometimes end up primarily helping the kinds of students who don’t need that much help anyway.

In response to these kinds of pressures, a lot of organizations offer wraparound supportive services. As the name implies, this entails wrapping the participant up with all the kinds of things they might need: referrals to drug or mental health treatment, transportation assistance, and life skills training (basically small group process for things like stress management, nonviolent conflict resolution, relationships, anger management, and so forth). Usually there’s a staff person, often called a Case Manager, Counselor, or Coach, charged with doing intake, developing an assessment to figure out who needs services (this would be part of steps 2 and 3 in Project Nutria), creating a supportive services plan, monitoring activities, and overseeing follow-up. Since most free social and human service programs have more people who want to participate than slots, the idea is to provide coordinated, concentrated services to a smaller number of clients instead of scattering a smattering of services across many.

Most importantly, the Case Manager will keep an eye on each participant and try to shepherd them through the program. If Student Joe promised to do Talent Search at least until he graduates from high school, then Case Manager Jane will make sure he’s attending activities and making progress toward his goals. She’ll also help him pick activities and get help with other things he needs—like legal services for the Minor in Possession he gets after the Homecoming Dance—as new crises arise.

Sometimes funders will sneak a requirement to provide wraparound supportive service in through backdoors, like “collaboration” (see “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point” for more). The The Full-Service Community Schools (FSCS) program provides a case in point. It specifies:

The Full-Service Community Schools (FSCS) program, which is funded under FIE, encourages coordination of academic, social, and health services through partnerships between (1) Public elementary and secondary schools; (2) the schools’ local educational agencies (LEAs); and (3) community-based organizations, nonprofit organizations, and other public or private entities. The purpose of this collaboration is to provide comprehensive academic, social, and health services for students, students’ family members, and community members that will result in improved educational outcomes for children.

Whoever wrote FSCS wants every obvious social problem to have a solution, only the solution is supposed to come from nominal “partners” who usually don’t get a piece of the grant pie. The partner is supposed to magically provide the referral service through some other imagined funding stream. And guess who’s going to tell Joe to visit the community-based organization that will provide him with whatever he needs? Jane. Joe doesn’t know the services exist, and if he does, he probably won’t know how to access them.

The dirty little secret of wraparound supportive services is that they can very seldom be sustained over the long or short term. If you really have a case manager, an education specialist, a child care consultant, a life coach, etc., you have to pay for all those positions. Virtually no grant will actually cover the full costs, and organizations also face trade-offs between the number of people who can be served through wraparound supportive services versus drop-in offerings. If you need case managers as well as all the other positions that need to be staffed, you’re naturally not going to be able to serve as many people because the cost per person rises.

As a result, more wraparound supportive services happen in the proposal world than the real world. A lot of RFPs want you to say you’ll provide wraparound supportive services even if the funding agency knows you can’t really provide them or doesn’t provide enough funding to make such services happen.

To some extent, these problems can be mitigated through the ever-promising referrals to other agencies in the target area: promise that you’re going to send John to the local drug rehab organization for that, the local community college or Workforce Investment Act (WIA) One-Stop Center for job training, and so on. That’s what the FSCS RFP is shooting for. But local “partners” have their own problems, their own full caseloads, and their own oversubscribed services that lead to waiting lists, which is how you get the kinds of problems already mentioned in our collaboration post.

Still, many RFPs want you to propose wraparound supportive services, which you can’t do unless you know what the term means. Now that you do, remember to include such services in your proposal.