Organizations as Catalysts

Category: Media Highlights

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Nonprofit providers bring people—and ideas—together to make lives better and improve the performance of staff.

For those working in a human-service field, being a catalyst is about improving the lives of the people you serve in every way possible. You can catalyze new connections (among people and via partnerships), use those partnerships to offer new services and programming, and build a culture that encourages the catalysts that live inside your employees.

A “Transformative Commitment to Innovation”

Front Porch, a full-continuum provider based in Glendale, CA, sees its people as its most valuable resource, and as catalysts for improving the organization’s services for seniors in 4 states.

To that end, a few years ago Front Porch developed Humanly Possible®, a framework for building a culture of innovation that would encourage creativity among staff—a way to turbocharge employees talents, as it were.

We interviewed Kari Olson, chief innovation and technology officer for Front Porch and president of the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing, about the goals and outcomes of Humanly Possible:

LeadingAge: How would you describe Humanly Possible?

Kari Olson: It’s a whole ecosystem of thought about how Front Porch can better transform itself to meet the needs of people we serve today and in the future.

We wanted to find a way to free up and empower our resources to [decide] where do we go next and how? We didn’t want an answer only from the executive suite or just one part of the organization. We long ago recognized our greatest strength is our brilliant people. There are a lot of opportunities for change, and we need to be serious about embracing and leading that change.

First, we knew we need to build a culture of innovation and permeate it across Front Porch. It’s a unique story because we leveraged a wonderful center of excellence that already existed here—our 5-Star College, which is a vehicle for educating our entire workforce in critical matters. It’s led by frontline staff, not outside people.

We identify our leading service stars around the organization, bring them in and educate them in how to conduct and lead an interesting 2-hour workshop, and they give this to all 2,200 employees. We have frontline staff teaching directors, management, and their peers. Out of that we put in action learning projects for staff. For the past 3 years our workforce has been able to combine themselves any way they want to.

We have gone deeper to take the leadership team (not just senior executives, but executive directors and others) and put them through an “innovators’ accelerator.” It’s a unique, online, 6-week, team-based, innovation and education course designed to break down silos, form a team, and learn how to do 2 things—make the organization more innovative and make individuals more innovative.

Here’s an example: At our Villa Gardens community in Pasadena last year, staff sat down with residents to help better meet their needs. We discovered residents were building a great relationship at a local elementary school, but were passionate about doing more. They had an idea for building a summer camp for the kids at this school. They [launched] an incredible project, and Front Porch fell into the background in a supporting role.

Residents took the lead in defining this 2-week summer camp at Villa Gardens, where there is a huge group of retired teachers among the residents. It had educational, social and activity components. They brought in volunteers to do lifeguarding at the swimming pool, to create engagement between 2 generations of folks. It had a huge ripple effect on everyone. It brought the media to tell the story, and has everyone in the organization thinking about what other opportunities exist in their neighborhoods to do more of the same.

This is the kind of engagement we hope Humanly Possible will help create. It’s not one person in one corner of the organization saying, we should do this; it’s residents and staff working together and then having the permission to allocate funds to make it happen, to bring in outside resources and get it done, when it wasn’t even on the books in the beginning.

We have had a number of technology projects that, before Humanly Possible, were hard to get off the ground, including:

  • Paro [the robot seal]
  • IN2L [It’s Never 2 Late]
  • Music and Memory

None of those were new when they came to Front Porch in the last 2 years, but because of the Humanly Possible culture and approach, where we intentionally engage a team, and pilot with residents, and then tell that story across the organization, we’ve had an unbelievable adoption of solutions, and impactfully so. We were thoughtful about how we learned to use them and what we could do with them. We didn’t just use them the way the inventors told us.

I’ve been here over 20 years, and have never been able to scale a solution across an organization this size in a matter of months. It’s now happened 3 times with these solutions, and each time the impact is massive.

LeadingAge: If I were a worker at Front Porch, in the Humanly Possible environment, how would my job be different than it would be otherwise?

Kari Olson: You will feel empowered to ask questions, to think about and share what needs you’re seeing, and to propose ideas about how things will be different. But the basic [job] tasks people perform are probably similar across other organizations.

For example, a chaplain might have a good idea about a program to help residents identify more purpose and meaning in life, and then might go out and get training and come back to propose how to do this on a larger scale, maybe even bringing in a researcher to help develop outcomes and to quantify and measure how to have success. This really happened; it started with a chaplain saying “I have a good idea and can I do this, and is there some funding to help pay for the research component?” Boom, it happened.

The fact that staff are doing this autonomously with the support of supervisors is exactly the environment we wanted to create, and this is a way change can spread much more rapidly.

LeadingAge: Has there been any resistance to this from staff?

Kari Olson: Oddly enough there hasn’t been much resistance. The overall reaction has been that this is great, and thanks for talking about it. One thing we talked about was the freedom to fail and learn from it. I’ve had personal emails from people saying it’s important to hear management say that.

It’s been easy to have quick successes and those stories resonate with people, but I’ll go back to this: Structures create behaviors. We’ve been fortunate to put annual trainings in place, put the action learning project in place, put executive goals in place, and be able to invest in education. At the end of the day it’s not as much a mandate as it is an inspired call to action. Those who are inspired are free to act.

The other thing I’d add is that we’re careful to say there is a role for everyone. Some people are the idea people, some are questioners, some are implementers. All those people have a place in this. For those who stand back and aren’t convinced, that’s a good thing. That helps us think through things and articulate better, and find answers to those questions.

LeadingAge: What is your strategy for making time for staff to work on these projects and think about these things? How can you help them set aside the daily responsibilities to make time for this?

Kari Olson: At this point there is nothing formal. At the beginning we worried if we could allocate a certain amount of time for staff on this. What I learned is that when something really matters, people find the time to work on it, and it’s amazing what people have committed to do that may not have been in their job responsibilities.

I’m convinced that if you find the right work and the right people, it works out. We have 3 years of evidence on that. We also had to think about budget. We do have funds to work on these projects but it amazed me the number of people who found funds in their own budgets to do good work, and never needed help. I think part of the advantage of turning this into a culture is that some of the barriers that might have been specific to this initiative seem to have dropped away.

LeadingAge: It’s easy to make an argument for avoiding risk and prioritizing compliance. How do you make an argument for risk?

Kari Olson: When someone fails you support them. You show there is much good and great learning [that can] come from a failed project. It’s important to distinguish between failed projects and failed persons. We don’t let people fail; projects might fail but it doesn’t mean people fail.

You don’t always get it right the first time and the best way to get it right is to try a few things and then learn and move on.

One of our most powerful tools is piloting. We pilot great ideas on a small scale and try to learn about how to succeed in a small pilot. What we’ve become good at is learning about how to tweak a model to make it successful, which is why we’re able to scale across our organization so quickly. By making those adjustments and trying and failing on a smaller scale, we’re actually able to get it right much faster.

When people in that process are celebrated for what they accomplished and not for the barriers they hit, people feel empowered and less afraid.

LeadingAge: How do you break down silos and encourage collaboration?

Kari Olson: It Always requires effort and intentionality. What Humanly Possible does is create intentionality and the message that we want to collaborate; can you come to the table for this?

A beautiful example is our site in La Jolla, CA, where the executive director wanted to strengthen staff/resident relationships, and had been listening to residents about their frustration about not having a place to garden.

Rather than just create a garden plot, he conceived of this idea—and it was part of his Humanly Possible goals—to create community-based mobile gardens. He brought in volunteers from outside. Everyone worked on mobile gardens as teams, and he added in LifeBio technology to capture and build people’s stories around gardening to solidify what it meant to people. He had to pull in department heads, maintenance teams, the resident council, resident gardeners, and even pulled in a chef to help cook with herbs from the garden.

He had a wild success on his hands, and now this has gone from being a project to being an essential part of the life of the community. It took time to have meetings with each of those groups to get them on the same page and coordinate efforts and get them working in a framework that matched the needs of everyone involved.

Being a creative catalyst is probably one of the best descriptions of what we hope to achieve through the Humanly Possible culture.

Creating Connections and Improving the Lives of Affordable Housing Residents

Two housing providers, Kavod Senior Life in Denver, CO, and Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly (JCHE) in Brighton, MA, began their strong relationship when their CEOs, Michael Klein and Amy Schectman, respectively, realized they could obtain valuable knowledge and insight from each other’s best practices.

Both providers have developed creative life enrichment programs. Kavod Senior Life’s “Kavod on the Road” program takes its programming, activities and education to seniors in the Denver area by partnering with nonprofit organizations, synagogues, and community centers. JCHE does more of its programming in-house, but works to bring in participants from the surrounding community with a program called “Wednesdays for Senior Learners.” Both organizations have created a community calendar which compiles all the programs in the community available to senior adults, as well as organization-specific programs, and distributes it to the seniors in both the greater community and to their residents.

We talked with Cindy Katzeff, JCHE’s director of community engagement and resident services director for Coleman House, and Christie Ziegler, director of communications and marketing for Kavod Senior Life, to learn more.

JCHE’s “Wednesdays for Senior Learners” program features 5 hours of classes, lunch, entertainment, exercise and a chance for new friendships. The program is open to residents and the wider community. Photo courtesy of JCHE.

LeadingAge: How do your programs work?

Cindy Katzeff: The JCHE program has 2 pieces. One runs within JCHE, and we invite the entire community to come in for a full day of classes. We also go out into the community and put together a calendar that we distribute, called From Strength to Strength.

On Wednesdays we have 5 hours of classes in a row on-site: an exercise class, a writing class and a lecture. Then there is lunch and then entertainment, a current events class, a Yiddish class and another exercise class at the end. Participants are free to choose which classes they would like to attend.

We’ll see at least 45 residents, then an equal number from the community.

Word goes out in the calendar in local newspaper, and we send blurbs out to any program that we know is hosting senior adults. Our residents and members bring friends and family. We’ve seen relationships develop between residents and community members. People will go to lunch together; they’ll visit people in the hospital. So there are positive social connections on top of lifetime learning.

Christie Ziegler: As mentioned, we also do a community calendar similar to JCHE’s called From Oy to Joy. We reach out and allow our partners to advertise events in this publication, which gets distributed to 2,000-plus seniors. Our programming structure is different, though; it is created as a collaborative partnership with other organizations in the community. We have 20 or so formal partners comprised of synagogues and other senior-serving agencies. We become their senior programmer, and they partner with us to do it.

We lead 7 to 10 activities at our partner sites each month. These activities are educational, informational or entertaining. We find that community seniors feel comfortable joining events at places they feel comfortable, like their synagogue. Attendance ranges from 5 to 80 people, depending on how many are at our partner site; the average number is in the 20s.

We also set up a one-day conference each year at a partner site, and nearly 300 seniors attend. There’s a keynote speaker and breakout sessions. The event is called “L’Chaim! A Conference and Resource Day for Boomers and Beyond.”

Though we’re not unique in doing community outreach, the specific way we do it has taken off in Denver and is something we think any community could do. Anyone with a passion for seniors will want to grab onto this kind of work. The benefit for us is extending our mission and being a servant leader in the community. There is a little marketing involved, in that this is one way to get our name out into the community—we rebranded in 2014. However, the programs have grown even more since the rebranding.

Kavod’s annual “L’Chaim Conference” brings nearly 300 attendees together for breakout sessions and a keynote speaker. Photo courtesy of Kavod Senior Life.

LeadingAge: How are programs like this catalyzing change?

Cindy Katzeff: This is a catalyst for change because our residential buildings have so much to offer, which older adults in the community have not previously had access to. These senior-focused activities build connection, purpose, decrease loneliness and stimulate both body and mind.

We believe in village centers and the positive effect they have on residents by bringing a whole new cohort into our building. The activities listed in our calendar open up doors outside of our walls to both residents and community members alike. We have modeled our calendar, “From Strength to Strength,” on Kavod’s.

Christie Ziegler: Our programming is a catalyst for change in that organizations like ours—those supported by HUD and serving low-income seniors—can do amazing things to promote socialization and mental stimulation that helps decrease the onset of dementia and premature moves into nursing homes, saving thousands of dollars. The work is part of our passion to serve older adults no matter their location.

LeadingAge: What kinds of resources are required to maintain these programs?

Cindy Katzeff: We devote about 20 hours a week to making calls, following up and organizing the program. Our group events coordinator, Kara Trietsch, assists me with the Wednesday program. We have programs on other days of the week just for residents. Wednesday is the one day we open up for everybody. We have 8 staff in our building. We have 3 exercise specialists that come to the site to lead the exercise classes. They travel to all of our sites to ensure quality exercise classes. We also get some grant funding to help offset costs.

Christie Ziegler: With 20 sites on the calendar, and 6 to 8 programs a month, we use the equivalent of 2 FTEs. One and one-half FTEs are devoted to Kavod on the Road programming and outreach, while our marketing coordinator creates all their marketing materials. While our employees attend all programs, some tasks are shared by our partners. To offset staff costs we’ve secured a couple of grants, and all partners pay into the program. Between that revenue and grants, 40-50% of the costs are covered.

Katzeff and Ziegler will be co-presenters for an education session, “How HUD-Subsidized Organizations Can Impact the Greater Community,” at this year’s LeadingAge Annual Meeting & EXPO in New Orleans, Oct. 29 to Nov. 1.

Gene Mitchell is editor of LeadingAge magazine.