All in the Family

Thirty years ago Bob Arnold was a young up-and-comer. The Family Center’s board took a chance on him,—and it paid off. As president, he has grown the agency tenfold and touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people

Photograph by Bob Capazzo

Like many people, Bob Arnold found his life’s calling by way of a significant event in his youth. For Arnold, it was the death of his father from cancer, when the now-president of Family Centers was sixteen years old. He knew that his dad was sick because he had dropped a lot of weight, but little was said during his illness or after he died. Some of that was family dynamics and some of it was the times, but Arnold suspects that the silence was why he was drawn to psychology and social work when he got to college. “There was a whole world where people were talking about things, things that were happening in their lives, things that were important, things that bothered them,” he says. “I believe that that loss was really unresolved, and I think social work was a path toward understanding it and maybe healing from it.”

So it would be, in life’s roundabout manner, that Arnold ultimately found his way to Family Centers, the multifaceted education and social services agency in Greenwich. Over the course of thirty years in the top job, he has helped spread the healing around, bettering the lives of untold thousands of people, many of whom have never even met him. Arnold may not be in the trenches, providing counseling or support services to those in need, but his heart is there, in the early education classes, children’s grieving sessions and the school health centers. “I’m in the right spot for me because I can walk around our facilities and programs and see it happening,” he says. “There are days when I’d love to be on the frontlines, but I do feel I have a bigger impact and can make a better contribution behind the scenes.”

Family Centers is a wide-ranging nonprofit that primarily serves Greenwich, Stamford and Darien. It also offers school services in New Canaan and Norwalk. With an $11.5-million budget, the organization runs thirty programs out of twenty-four locations for everyone from youngsters to senior citizens. In all, the group serves about 18,000 people annually. Its mission, “to empower children, adults, families and communities to realize their potential,” is purposely all-encompassing, inspirational and forever striving. “It’s a wonderful mission when you’re trying to help people realize their potential,” says Arnold. “Not to do it for them, but to empower them to do it.”

Arnold may be chief executive officer, the point man for raising funds and making the tough decisions, but he is hardly removed from the Family Centers staff or the people it serves. “He can sit in the preschool in the little chairs and read a book to a four-year-old, and he can deal with a major hedge-fund person or a major corporate head just as successfully,” says Jan Dilenschneider, a longtime board member.

His Life Path

Not long ago, around the time of his thirtieth anniversary as president, Arnold received a letter from a local woman thanking him for his part in helping her family many years ago. “She told me that her son was thirty-two years old now, and that she remembers me from when she brought him to the preschool, how they had some financial issues at the time, that they got a lot of scholarships, and that he’s grown up to be a wonderful, successful young man. She attributed it to the great beginning he had here, and she thanked me for the leadership I’ve given to the place. I do get acknowledgment from people who have been helped in various programs here. It’s rewarding. Of course, in my job you get the complaints, too.”

Those can be frustrating, especially when the grievance comes from someone who was unable to get her child into a program that’s critical to them. The Head Start preschool program for children from low-income families, for instance, has a limited number of slots. “It’s difficult because you know when you see this child that they absolutely need it, and when you work with the family you know they don’t have other options or certainly not many,” Arnold says. “We can’t be all things to all people. We recognize that. But it doesn’t make it easy when you have to turn someone down.”

Arnold grew up in Fairfield and lives there today with his wife, Andrea, a social worker at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk. They have a grown daughter, Sarah. He sometimes wonders what path his life would have taken had he not lost his father when he was still in high school. Perhaps he would have been a lawyer or gone into business. As it was, he majored in psychology at the University of Bridgeport. It was in his first job, as a mental health worker at Hall-Brooke Hospital in Westport, that he got a taste for social work. “The psychologists were doing the individual psychotherapy, the psychiatrists were medicating the patients, and the social workers were doing kind of the exciting work of bringing the patients together with their families and doing dynamic family-oriented work,” he remembers. “I just found that to be fascinating.”

He would go on to Columbia University for his master’s in social work. An internship at what was then known as the Family Center in Greenwich led to a full-time position as a clinical social worker. Four years later, not even thirty years old, the group’s president stepped down and Arnold decided to put in for the job. He was interested in the business side of things, and he had some ideas about how he could make the agency, which then only had three programs, bigger and better. To his surprise, the board of directors gave him the nod. “The timing was right and they were secure enough as a board to give it a try, to bring in young management with a different outlook,” Arnold says. “I like to think their belief paid off.” That was thirty years ago.

Growing the Family

At first, change came slowly. Despite some internal controversy, he was able to make day care a full-day program, a major achievement back then. Later, he would oversee tremendous growth in the organization, with six mergers and acquisitions. The first, in 1994, was the coming together with Family and Children Services in Stamford, followed by Hotline, the Den for Grieving Kids, Center for Hope, and others. Programming has grown tenfold during Arnold’s tenure. Professional staff, likewise, went from twenty to two hundred and the number of volunteers went from fifty to fifteen hundred.

Foundations and other funders are constantly calling for more mergers and collaborative efforts among similar nonprofits. And though many charities agree with that sentiment in theory, Arnold is among the relatively few in his position to take it to heart. Indeed, mergers can be difficult. To succeed, a leader must tread carefully through the minefields of workplace cultures and egos, always with an eye toward making a stronger, more efficient operation for the clients.

Rob Cashel, who worked with Arnold at Family Centers and who now runs Family and Children’s Agency in Norwalk, remembers how deftly Arnold handled the coupling with Family and Children Services in Stamford. “For a period of time prior to the merger he was literally CEO of Family Centers but also acting in that capacity for the agency in Stamford,” Cashel says. “His ability to  manage those two boards and ultimately shepherd the merger goes right to the point of his ability to not only juggle multiple tasks but to articulate and communicate in such a way so that the process was able to go forward. His ability to really articulate leads people to feel comfortable in moving forward with something like that.”

These days, as Family Centers and other nonprofits seek to regain their financial footing in the wake of the recession, Arnold continues to forge ahead. Collaborations—Family Centers boasts of thirty-five partnerships—are always on his mind. He is the driving force, for example, behind a joint effort with Cashel’s group and FSW, Inc., a Bridgeport social service agency, to improve and integrate information technology services for medical records and the like. The new $1-million system will help the agencies meet the recordkeeping requirements of healthcare reform, but also make for more efficiency in dealing with government and other funders.

He’s also proud of Family Centers’ new consumer service initiative, originated by the staff, to set standards and raise the bar for customer relations. The focus is on giving clients, no matter what their income or background, the optimal experience in dealing with an organization that Arnold feels was already doing a good job. “It’s really about treating each other with dignity and respect,” he says. “People deserve to be treated that way even if they don’t drive the fanciest car or have all the bells and whistles.”

Challenging times remain, for everyday people and for charities. Fundraising, of course, is a big part of Bob’s job, but it’s one that he finds more pleasant than stressful. “I approach it as I would a business proposition and try to sell what it is we have to offer,” he says. “The way I try to frame it is that you’re investing in people and outcomes that will pay dividends for years to come by making people more healthy and productive members of society.” (Family Centers’ annual
fundraiser, “Dancin’ in the Street,” is scheduled for Saturday, June 2 at the Greenwich Armory.)

When the economy is uncertain, it is easy to turn inward, Arnold says. But in the end, that would only be self-defeating. “We could be consumed with questions like, ‘What’s going to happen if this grant goes away?’ or ‘What if income drops?’ and all that sort of stuff,” he says. “But we’re trying to keep a positive focus and move in a positive direction. The organization needs to keep focused on what we do well and do it even better. That’s the bottom line.”


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