Housing Forward and Prevail have announced that the two agencies are merging in order to “strengthen the support system for individuals and families in our communities who are experiencing financial and housing crises.”

The marriage of nonprofits will take the name Housing Forward (formerly West Suburban PADS), by far the larger of the two agencies, but Prevail, the program originally called Walk-In Ministry, which is run out of First United Church in Oak Park, will still call itself Prevail.

In one sense, today’s merger formalizes a relationship that has existed for a long time. Lynda Schueler, who has been the executive director of Housing Forward/PADS since 2001 said her organization had been referring clients to Prevail since its founding in 2005 because “they provided services that we didn’t have the resources to provide.”

Similarly, Cristy Harris, Prevail’s executive director since 2009, said her agency has been referring clients to Housing Forward “for a number of years because they have substance abuse counselors and social workers that we don’t have on site.”

The collaborative relationship between the two organizations grew closer when Housing Forward received an AmeriCorps grant five years ago and Schueler asked Harris if she would be interested in sharing one of the workers. The two directors had always enjoyed a collegial relationship and weren’t turf conscious, so talk about collaborating further came up regularly in their conversations.

In April of last year Harris and Schueler attended a workshop on strategic partnerships sponsored by the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation. Then Schueler learned last summer that the AmeriCorps grant funding was being cut, and the results of last November’s election raised fears that state funding would soon be reduced as well (On June 25 she was informed that $150,000 for Housing Forward’s Open Door Housing Program would be cut in half).

The two directors approached the Community Foundation about doing a feasibility analysis on merging the two agencies. The study, Schueler recalled, “revealed what synergies there were between Prevail’s Emergency Assistance Program and our Homeless Prevention Program; their Job Readiness Program and our Employment Readiness Program; their skill-based group of volunteers and our large 1,000-person pool of volunteers.

What began as a crisis turned into an opportunity.

Blending the two organizations starts with communication. The telephones at Housing Forward’s central office in Maywood have to be integrated with those of Prevail at First United. Though only one Prevail staff position will be eliminated, the remaining five staff members will have to adjust to the way things are done in the 41 staff-member agency with its more complex structure.

That reality bother Harris. “Prevail will become a program in the Housing Forward organization instead of an independent organization, but part of what Housing Forward values about our agency is the way we serve our clients. We are going to do our best to make sure that becoming part of a much larger organizational structure does not affect the way we interact with our clients. We have that one-on-one intimate interaction.”

Another concern is fundraising. Many donors who write annual checks to both organizations might think that they now have to write only one check each year. “You will now write only one check, because Prevail will no longer have its own bank account,” said Schueler, but “we are asking you to double the amount of that one check.” Maintaining the same level of giving is critical, in part because Prevail receives no funding from grants as does Housing Forward.”

Another challenge is integrating five members of Prevail’s former board of directors with the 23-member Housing Forward board.

Harris feels good about the merger because they share the same values and similar cultures. 

“Another strength,” Schueler added, “is that the two organizations share the same philosophy regarding how to deliver services. We at Housing Forward have actually gotten out of some partnerships we’ve formed because we were at loggerheads in this regard. You can’t have two culturally different philosophies on how clients are to be treated.”

In addition, she said, “Because Prevail will now be a program in the Housing Forward organization, their website will continue to be up for a time, but will eventually be included in Housing Forward’s website. That’s going to take some time.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...

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