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The first watershed moment in UMOS, Inc.’s 56-year progression from a local migrant farmworker advocacy group to a multi-state social services and workforce development agency came in 1997.
The nonprofit organization, then a roughly $8 million operation, grew overnight when it won a 2-year, $51 million contract from the State of Wisconsin to administer the Wisconsin Works welfare reform program in Milwaukee County. UMOS immediately started looking for more office space and began onboarding “an incredible” number of new employees as the scope of its business multiplied, recalled UMOS president and chief executive officer Lupe Martinez.
“We took a $50 million increase and everybody started scrambling to redo the organizational structure,” said Martinez, who has led the organization since 1974.
UMOS’ second turning point appears to have occurred in recent months. Through the second half of 2020 and into early this year, the organization has won a slew of new contracts, the largest being an annual $25 million federal agreement to operate a Head Start program for migrant and seasonal worker families in Texas. In total, UMOS brought in $37 million in new grant revenue last year, which will expand its presence both in Wisconsin and nationally and swell its workforce to roughly 900 employees.
But UMOS’ recent growth spurt is unusual for the organization, Martinez said. Rather, its transformation over the years has usually been one of incremental growth, the accumulation of smaller government contracts that have led to UMOS’ now robust portfolio of services.
Formed by local ecumenical groups, United Migrant Opportunity Services incorporated in 1965 as an effort to help migrant farmworkers. Its early years were linked to President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty; it got its start with a single Office of Economic Opportunity grant to fund four day-care centers.
Martinez, who came from a family of migrant farmworkers, joined the organization in 1969 as a bilingual outreach worker. His plan was to work there for a couple years and use it as a launching pad to a position in state or federal government.
In May, he will have been with the organization for 52 years, including 47 at its helm.
When Martinez became executive director in 1974, his priority was to grow UMOS’ services to meet the increased needs of farmworkers and to diversify the organization’s revenue sources. Soon, the organization widened its reach to serve more demographic groups.
“UMOS had a really good model to provide services to disadvantaged individuals, and whether they’re migrant worker or not, whether they’re Latino or not, it really doesn’t matter,” Martinez said. “The families had needs that needed to be addressed. And when they saw what UMOS had, they asked ‘can you apply that model to our population as well?’ And that’s how we started diversifying the population that we served and the funding sources that we had.”
Its work now largely falls into three areas: workforce development, child development and social services. It manages more than 40 government contracts, with programs ranging from tech workforce training to domestic violence prevention to home energy assistance to off-farm labor housing. Workforce development makes up the largest portion of its business, accounting for $12.5 million of its $26.5 million in grant expenditures in 2019-’21. Child education and development is second highest, at $9 million.
Today, it runs programs in Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin.
The way UMOS leaders describe the organization’s evolution, its expansion has unfolded organically, with one contract leading to another, and then another. Taking on the Wisconsin Works program 24 years ago got the agency’s foot in the door to do more workforce development work, and it eventually won another state contract to operate the Transitional Jobs program, which it now runs in counties across the state.
About 98% of UMOS’ funding comes from government sources, with the remainder coming from individuals, corporate donors and foundations.
“UMOS evolved dramatically from just a grant-seeking organization to a performance-based, data-driven, customer-focused organization,” said Rod Ritcherson, special assistant to Martinez, who credits the organization’s Wisconsin Works contract as catalyzing that transformation. “Now, if UMOS didn’t perform, it didn’t get paid. It forced UMOS to evolve. … UMOS had to up its game. It had to be more competitive. It had to perform. It had to actually show results and outcomes to meet the requirements of the funding sources.”
Leveraging political connections has also played a role in UMOS’ growth. Over the past five decades, Martinez, a registered lobbyist in the state of Wisconsin, has made a point to build relationships with county executives, aldermen, governors and other elected officials, both in and outside of Wisconsin.
Working across party lines is a necessity in a state like Wisconsin where the political winds and power dynamics shift every few years, Martinez said.
“Our niche is that we’re very good and have been very successful in tapping into the federal resources. We’re very, very competitive,” he said. “But, depending on who the administration is, whether it’s Democratic or Republican, it can be very volatile. Because based on their needs, they change funding sources. Somehow, we have been able to manage and survive all of those various administrations. … We have come very, very close to maybe losing major funding sources, but we always land on our feet.”
He said he advises his staff that building “social capital” through connections and partnerships is just as, if not more, important than capital itself. In some cases, the one precedes the other.
For example, Martinez recalls a few years back, when Kenosha County was seeking an agency to run its Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance Program. County officials sought out UMOS, even though energy was outside the organization’s wheelhouse at the time.
“I got a call from the county executive and he said ‘I have a program here that I need some help with.’ … He said ‘I need to have you run the energy program,’” Martinez said. “I said, ‘We really don’t do energy,’ and he said ‘Yeah, but you guys manage good programs.’”
UMOS took on the work in 2011, and that led to another energy assistance contract with Milwaukee County.
Martinez stressed that methodical decisions – and judicious restraint – have propelled the organization’s growth over the years.
“(Some organizations) see a funding source and grab it because (it’s) there. That’s called ‘flavor of the day,’” Martinez said. “… Some organizations will grab anything that’s coming around. We don’t do that. Funding opportunities come over my desk every day. As management we look at it and say ‘no, that’s not a good fit for UMOS, that’s not part of our mission, it’s not something we know how to do well.’ We try to remain really focused on what we are very good at.”
By April, UMOS leaders expect the organization to reach $62 million in grant revenue, and new contracts continue to come in. In late January, the organization won a 5-year, $3.9 million U.S. Department of Labor grant for its TechHire program, an initiative to provide accelerated training in technology fields and other skilled trades to formerly incarcerated individuals.
Its new $25 million contract in Texas, awarded in November, was another major get for UMOS. After eyeing expansion there for more than 20 years, Martinez said, he finally got the call last year to begin operating Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Programs in the state, which builds on its existing Head Start programs in Arkansas, Missouri and Wisconsin.
It also recently expanded its presence in Illinois, opening four new offices to provide farmworker job support services statewide, and is in the process of bringing its transitional jobs program to six more Wisconsin counties.
Martinez said his team’s immediate focus is making sure its programs run well, not necessarily on seeking more big contracts.
“We want funding streams that will stick around for a long, long time. That’s priority,” he said, adding that the goal is to grow at a “very slow pace” to maintain sustainability.
“We prefer to grow at a 4% or 5% growth every year,” he said.
But he also sees the need to be ready when opportunity presents itself. And, for UMOS, opportunity often does.
“If someone says ‘we would like to have UMOS expand into state X,Y, Z,’ we want to explore that to see if there’s a program we’re running now that could be replicated there,” he said.