06/12/2013 04:59 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

Boston Best v. Boston Strong: A Lesson for Service Organizations

A key lesson from the recent tragic events in Boston is that building a community may be more important than striving for excellence.
Boston has always thought of itself in superlative terms -- the best hospitals and sports teams, the oldest money and history, the highest land prices and political donations.

The list goes on and on. Every city has its boosters but Boston gazed down on all as the city on the hill. None of that mattered when the bombs went off. Yes, it was critical that the hospitals and doctors administered great care, but Boston "the best" was no balm for a fractured community. Bostonians were frightened and horrified amid chaos and pain.
Then came Boston Strong. Agencies and organizations put their individual ambitions and agendas aside and created a community around a common purpose. While agencies rose to the occasion, it was the people who seized the opportunity to wear the T-shirts and emblems that linked them to their neighbors through the same insignia. Now Boston Strong T-Shirts are worn everywhere and people take strength from each other, especially at concerts and events.

We should learn from this experience and find a way to make it permanent. In the social service world, where the mission is to assist those in need, many agencies remain insular and exclusive, failing to see themselves as members of a unified community of agencies. Even with wrap-around services, each agency stands apart, doing its own bit. Each must convince funders that it holds the most unique solution to the most important problem worthy of the greatest funding.

A doggerel that captures Boston exclusivity goes, "Here's to dear old Boston, the home of the bean and the cob, where the Cabots speak only to the Lodges and the Lodges speak only to God." That would actually be more conversation than what passes between most service agencies in and out of Boston. Agencies direct most of their conversation to their own slice of the pie from funders to clients. How do clients view the cast of agencies that provide services to them, but never talk to each other?

National funders have championed consolidation of social service agencies as a way to curb the balkanization of services rendered. With the exception of some mergers during the recent Great Recession,this call has gone unheeded. Perhaps it's the wrong strategy. No executive director is going to sign off on a merger that sees his or her staff made redundant. A better strategy may be to keep pluralism but merge ideas. This requires a community-based approach. Agencies should work together at the client level to blend service strategies around critical mass.

The key is to create a community where the citizens are empowered by the many services offered by the agencies in partnership. There should be a "cafeteria of services" from which the people can choose those that best fulfill their needs. This can help fill the gaps and minimize the limitations of some programs, while reducing redundancies. So the model should be Boston Strong, a community that empowers people to acquire what they need beyond what agencies offer. It's a community with skin in the game because people come voluntarily to find support. It's a spirit that makes the sum greater than its parts.

In today's world of social service agencies, individual parts are all that exist. Agencies are interested in their own work and not in the whole. But the whole is the client. Unless we treat the client as a whole, we leave them to fit everything together and nothing at all. Make no mistake, Boston has reveled for decades in proclaiming superiority, but right now it feels a lot safer in Boston Strong.