Hit by a “major financial emergency,” Switchboard of Miami plans to shut down by Dec. 1 as it transfers staff from crisis hotlines and counseling services to a better-funded operator.
Charity executives shared sparse details about Switchboard’s pending demise at Tuesday’s meeting of the Miami-Dade County Commission, which approved shifting about $300,000 in county funds to Jewish Community Services, which is taking over Switchboard’s headquarters and operations.
“These programs will not go away,” said Fred Stock, CEO of North Miami-based Jewish Community Services of South Florida. “And we’re going to save as many jobs as we can.”
Marlene Erven, a consultant for nonprofits who was hired two months ago as interim director at Switchboard, said the 45-year-old charity faced a “cascading” string of financial problems that the board tried, but failed, to address. She did not provide details, but said Switchboard missed fundraising targets and recently lost a federal grant worth more than $1 million a year.
“We were fortunate to find Jewish Community Services,” Erven told commissioners.
With a budget topping $15 million, Jewish Community Services is twice the size of Switchboard. Stock said Switchboard’s local backers, including government agencies and the United Way, are shifting grants to Jewish Community Services and that his organization has the funds to absorb the new programs.
Incorporated in 1971, Switchboard runs hotlines that focus on suicide prevention and mental-health counseling, along with finding help for people facing problems with housing, hunger and other needs. Specialized hotlines target seniors, veterans and LGBTQ people seeking help. The most popular number run by Switchboard is 211, a social-services version of 911 that draws nearly 200,000 calls a year in Miami-Dade, according to data posted on 211counts.org. More than half of Switchboard’s 211 callers in 2016 sought help for their mental health or addiction.
These programs will not go away
Jewish Community Services CEO Fred Stock
Switchboard also provides family counseling, companionship services for seniors, youth-health programs and other social-service offerings. Stock said Jewish Community Services is in the process of taking over all of the programs offered by Switchboard.
A summary prepared for the county’s Children’s Trust board, which administers a property tax dedicated to youth services, showed the first public sign of trouble at Switchboard came in May when once-a-week furloughs began. By July, Switchboard warned it might not be able to make payroll without more funding. Management slashed a staff of 146 down to 95. (It’s now down to about 70, Erven said Tuesday.)
Catherine Penrod, Switchboard’s director during the crisis, left in August, according to the summary.
By September, Switchboard formally notified the county of a “major financial emergency” and the start of talks with Jewish Community Services to take over the troubled charity. Erven said Switchboard went through three chief financial officers in two years. The Children’s Trust summary said about $650,000 in obligations, including $135,000 in loans and $265,000 in unpaid vendor bills, contributed to Switchboard’s current crisis.
With a budget of about $7 million listed in its most recent tax return, Switchboard serves roughly 140,000 people a year in Miami-Dade and Monroe, Erven said. Its main office is located in South Miami, and Jewish Community Services will continue to run it and manage all of the same hotlines, including 211. But the name itself, Switchboard Miami, will not transfer.
In July, Switchboard warned it might not be able to make payroll without more funding. Management slashed a staff of 146 down to 95.
At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners expressed concern at the loss of Switchboard Miami, which started in 1971. Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz sponsored the motion to transfer the county funds to Jewish Community Services and pressed Stock on whether the organization was picking up all of Switchboard’s services. “We can’t afford to miss anybody in this process,” Diaz said.
“The brand Switchboard for emergencies is known throughout,” said Commissioner Barbara Jordan. “How do you plan to transition that brand? Teenagers know about it. The suicide line was commonplace in terms of young people calling it and getting help.”
Stock said it’s the telephone numbers themselves — particularly 211 — that enjoy the following among people in crisis.
“We’re going to market it and brand it the same way,” Stock said of 211. “All the numbers will remain the same. For someone calling, they will not know the difference.”