Malini Sridharan

Managing Through Change: Part III - Mobilizing Advocates to Fight for Government Funding An Interview with Donald Romanik, Former Vice President for Legal and Governmental Affairs at Oak Hill

Oak Hill is a leading provider of services and residences for the severely disabled in Connecticut. It operates a main campus in Hartford with dozens of group homes around the state. A few years ago, Oak Hill faced a familiar challenge for many nonprofits—shrinking government support even as need remained high.

Oak Hill’s service population included some of the highest need people with intellectual and physical disabilities in the state, and Oak Hill was one of the only providers equipped to care for these difficult cases. Oak Hill had been covering budget shortfalls with their endowment, but realized that this couldn’t be a long term solution. They looked at ways to decrease cost, but found that it would require them to stop serving the highest need populations and even shut down some of their residential facilities. This would have been a disaster for the individuals whom they served, and their families, as no other provider was equipped to provide the kind of care at which Oak Hill excelled. Rather than bend to these pressures, Oak Hill took a different tack, and successfully mobilized the families they served to advocate for additional state funding.

Recently we spoke with Donald Romanik, former General Counsel at Oak Hill. He shared five insights on how to successfully pursue additional funding through advocacy

Insight #1 – Focusing on revenue can be the answer when cost cutting or other efficiencies aren’t an option

Donald Romanik: “Our Director at the time had the philosophy that bigger was better. It was also a time of deinstitutionalization and privatization, so the state was looking for capacity among the providers they funded. We were opening homes at an incredible rate, but supplementing the cost of the programs over the reimbursement we got with our endowment. We had a nice endowment that most of our sister organizations did not have, and that worked for a while. But eventually, the Board said the endowment was not there to subsidize chronic underfunding. We looked at cutting cost and being more efficient. But we decided it was not only about that—it was about the value we were bringing to the table. We were the provider of last resort. The state called us when no one else could take someone. So we told the state they needed to increase their rates. We were the largest, but also one of the most expensive providers, because we were unionized. Part of the issue was convincing the government we were worth the price differential.”

Insight # 2 – To secure additional funding, empower families to advocate for their loved ones

Donald Romanik: “To convince the government of our value, we hit on the idea of involving the families of our residents. This was really the first time that we got families involved. There had always been a reluctance to involve parents in advocacy because of an almost paternalistic belief— that we were there to take care of their poor disabled child. But, we realized it was a way to empower parents as advocates for their kids. Legislators are used to seeing the administrations of organizations like ours asking for money. But when someone comes and says ‘I am a proud parent of a resident at an Oak Hill facility’, they stop and look. Those are their constituents, not the usual suspects.”

Insight #3 – Choose the right families for the most effective advocacy efforts

Donald Romanik: “You need to choose the right people to be involved in advocacy. They should be constituents who not only appreciate the services and needs of their own family member but also understand the broader mission, the idea of the common good, and the role of government. Also, identify people who can articulate their views in a very personal and compelling fashion.”

Insight #4 – Give families a variety of entry points for advocacy

Donald Romanik: “We gave the families various entry points. The easiest entry point was to provide a template for a letter to their legislator—they could sign it and add a little note. The next level was to ask them to call their legislator, giving them a script they could use. Additionally, some people were politically active in local districts and were comfortable coming to rallies at the capital or testifying at public hearings.  This was all before social media. In this day and age, there are a lot more user-friendly ways to engage people. You can ask a parent to do a 30-second video where they say how great Oak Hill is while sitting next to their daughter in a group home, then post it on your website or Facebook page. Organizations need to take full advantage of the myriad communication opportunities that are available now.”

Insight #5 – Keep pushing and do it right

Donald Romanik: “Remember that you are competing. Government funding is a zero sum game with a limited pie. And, you can’t assume people know you exist and are doing good work. You have to tell legislators once, twice, three times in different ways. Bombard them with emails, texts and social media, but do it in a respectful way. For this to be successful, you also need leadership at the top and participation at every level of the organization—rank and file people, employees, parents, etc. It is time consuming and can be frustrating, but it is really critical to the mission of the organization and, more importantly, to providing services and supports to core constituencies.”

Managing Through Change: Part II - How Do You Respond To Your Own Success?

An Interview with Richard McCarthy, Executive Director of Slow Food USA

Slow Food is a grassroots organization founded by Carlo Petrini in Italy in 1986 and has since spread to over 150 countries. Offering an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming characteristic of the local ecosystem.

In recent years, Slow Food USA faced an enviable but daunting challenge. The organization’s priorities, once radical, had become increasingly mainstream. How could Slow Food USA continue to be vital and relevant? Additionally, Slow Food had historically been supported by a large grass-roots membership. But the attraction of membership was waning in the United States among members of all types of membership organizations. How could the organization adapt its revenue model in response?

Recently we spoke with Richard McCarthy, Slow Food USA’s Executive Director, about how the organization navigated these challenge to find a new path forward that focused on convening and inspiring their audiences.

Wellspring: How would you characterize the challenges that Slow Food USA Faced?

Richard McCarthy: “The context for Slow Food USA was what happens when you start to succeed. The ideas that Slow Food pioneered and our unique belief system have evolved into a complex ecosystem of competing organizations in part because of our success. Our ideas are no longer marginal and crazy. They are now main-stream. We are a brand, and a body of ideas. By recognizing that, we clarified that our role should be a nexus, not a club.”

Wellspring: Slow Food USA had historically been a membership-based organization. How would you describe the challenges Slow Food faced with its membership model?

Richard McCarthy: “With changes in technology and social media, individuals’ expectations of how they interact with groups have changed. Mobilizing civil society in America has become a real challenge because people have too little unstructured time left. We work too hard and travel too much. There isn’t enough economic security and time, so an old-school member organization based on strong social ties is really difficult to enact in the US. Now, people tend to move into and out of organizations, to touch them and occasionally engage. Getting people to make a deep commitment to strong social ties is asking a lot.”

Wellspring: You looked at other organizations’ models during strategic planning with us. What stood out as most useful or interesting?

Richard McCarthy: “The real a-ha moments for us were learning about Alcoholics Anonymous and Burning Man. Alcoholics Anonymous is an extraordinary organization—it’s global, very flat, and based on a set of values that are replicated all over the world with little assistance from a central body. We realized that’s how Slow Food functions—we’ve never had a centralized and fully capitalized mother ship. That gave us insight into considering the nature of our organization, which has strong values and loose structure. Regarding Burning Man, people don’t engage with their events for rational economic reasons— Burning Man’s crazy idea is a visible, tactile, authentic experience. Their example helped us to realize what people look for in Slow Food— a tactile, meaningful experiences where details matter. This pointed to the core of what our future could be.”

Wellspring: What was one of the most exciting moments during the strategic planning work?                   

Richard McCarthy: “Fairly early on in the process, we came out with an understanding that we inspire people. While measuring inspiration is not easy, it landed in our laps that, ‘oh my god, this is what we do.’ When people described why they came into our organization, inspiration always came up. That is different than most people’s interaction with social change—it’s often from fear or anger. Inspiration is not that typical. Realizing that we did this well was quite exciting. We found a strength that we had not valued previously and identified a path that was within our reach and allowed us to harness that strength.”

Wellspring: You decided to pursue a model of convening people and organizations nationally. Why?

Richard McCarthy: “Convening a vast array of other organizations and people relieves us from having to be active in every space. For instance, if one group is good on food and labor issues, we can rely on them as partners without having to have an answer for everything in that space. We can support others, and maybe even lead from behind. The business model for civil society is really vulnerable. It would be so much easier to let big organizations do their thing because their scale would help them perpetuate. But at the other end of the spectrum, there can be a balkanized society of organizations. You want a biodiversity of organizations, but not so much internal competition that we end up cannibalizing each other.”

Wellspring: What advice would you have for leaders facing similar challenges?

Richard McCarthy: “One of the under-recognized and underutilized fuels for organizations is passion. Passion is the glue that often keeps organizations going during difficult times. If there isn’t much passion, then no strategic plan can facilitate a shift. So in some ways, passion matters more than the soundness of the business model.”

Wellspring: What thoughts or advice do you have for organizations focused on issues like food, in these times where there are a number of politically charged issues taking precedence in the media and national conversation?

Richard McCarthy: At moments like this, where the conversation is not about excitement that a new garden is going in at the While House but rather building a wall around our country that keeps out people who grow, harvest, and serve food, it is easy to be distracted and feel like we have to join someone else’s conversation. I think it requires extraordinary discipline to ignore that white noise. In such times, it is important to revisit the mission to see if it is still relevant and still makes sense— and that the right outcomes are being measured. If things are not aligned, an organization can go astray.”

Wellspring: What would you want others to know about strategic planning and pursuing new paths forward?

Richard McCarthy: “It was an extraordinary process. It ate up a lot of time, but at moments it was fascinating. What was most difficult was maintaining a public face during the process— we were still open for business, but were questioning why we exist. Also, it took our historic network of members and chapters a long time to adjust because they weren’t living the strategic planning process every day. Making a culture shift and building the staff and skills for a new organization is a lot of heavy lifting.”

Managing Through Change: Part I - Leading in an Uncertain Environment

An Interview with Scott Giles, President and CEO of the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation

The Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC), is a nonprofit public corporation providing citizens of the state with information and financial resources to attend college. The organization has awarded over $600 million in grants and scholarships, and has served over 400,000 students since its inception in 1965.

When Wellspring first worked with VSAC their role was to raise capital in the bond markets, and repackage the money into loans offered to students. After the Obama administration took office, the federal government moved to take over the management of student loans, calling it the Direct Loan Program. The federal government offered to make organizations like VSAC into “loan servicers,” thereby managing communications and payments for loans they would no longer own. VSAC faced some difficult choices. Should they participate in the Direct Loan Program as loan servicers? Were there other lines of business they should move into?

Before these changes, VSAC’s work had been well-funded and they had grown into a major employer in the area. They also ran programs that helped students make the best financial aid choices. VSAC questioned how best to respond to the changes in their external environment, and what their response would mean for the structure of their programs and organization.

Recently we spoke with Scott Giles, President and CEO of VSAC, who shared seven guidelines drawn from how VSAC successfully managed through this change and uncertainty.

Guideline #1 – Invest heavily in relationships with organizations who share your interests

Scott Giles: “There were signs that people wanted to make this change [from federally guaranteed to Direct Loans], and we were engaged in a pretty heady political conversation about the two competing programs. We [VSAC and related organizations in other states] were members of several trade associations. We had invested the time and effort with political leaders in our state and in DC as important stakeholders. I think that working with other organizations facing the same challenges is particularly important during these times of change. We invested as much time in building and nurturing relationships with other organizations as we did with customers or more traditional nonprofit stakeholders. Therefore our state representatives, the Department of Education, and other political players knew the value that our organization provided, and why what happened to us mattered. But it was a big challenge to motivate our counterparts. Connecting with political leaders is work, and it can seem like it is taking away from the bottom line.”

Guideline #2 – Develop multiple “fall back” options even as you advocate for your current programs

Scott Giles: “At the end of the day, the legislation that eliminated our program happened within a week. But because we had made the investment in talking with our delegation, we had our “plan B” already in place, which was to contract with the federal government to service loans. At the same time, we were thinking about what to do if plan B didn’t work out. We looked at diversifying and not putting all our eggs into one plan B. At the time, this approach was controversial, but in terms of where we are today, it turned out to be a good thing. The initial plan B was loan servicing, which we are in the process of exiting, and plan C was our nonfederal loan program, which has really taken off.”

Guideline #3 – Set benchmarks and decision points to assess progress and navigate uncertainty

Scott Giles: “Early on, VSAC thought Direct Loan Servicing was the path forward. But the work we did in strategic planning highlighted for us that there were significant uncertainties about the success of that program. At the same time we were working through how to do Direct Loan Servicing, we were exploring other possibilities that lay within our competencies. From a planning perspective, it was critically important to have decision points and set clear benchmarks to know if a plan was successful as it was being implemented. If we weren’t achieving specific goals, we knew when it was time to question whether the investment made sense. The strategic plan helped us lay that framework.”

Guideline #4 – Be analytical and thorough when making decisions in times of uncertainty

Scott Giles: “To manage in times that are chaotic, do planning that is very analytical in the beginning. Clarify assumptions and data points, and build a strategy based on these, along with tactics to implement the strategy. We did this with our strategic plan. Then, go back and question those assumptions on a regular basis because the world is changing. We avoided problems because we re-examined our assumptions every six months. If we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have noticed problems until it was too late to do anything.”

Guideline #5 – Dedicate time and effort to understand different scenarios

“We used an interesting process to decide whether to continue pursuing Direct Loan Servicing. This was a major strategic question with major impact on our organization and our staff. We wanted to make sure we were making the best decision for the organization. I broke our staff leadership into 2 teams. I had people who were neutral or who wanted out of Direct Loan Servicing build a case for staying in. I had those who were more interested in staying build the case for getting out. They worked on their cases for a month, and we all contributed to make sure the data was right. Then, we came back together to fight it out, with each side poking holes in each other’s arguments. After that, we looked to see if we had consensus, and we did. To us, except for the staff impact, the decision to exit was clear.

For the Board, we presented the two cases in full, but didn’t tell them what our initial recommendation was. We let the Board argue it out. Our Board Chair asked whether I was nervous that they would reach a different conclusion from the leadership team. But the way I saw it, if you don’t prepare your Board well enough, they can end up making decisions without all the relevant information. I wanted to give them all the information— if they reached a different conclusion, it would be because they saw something our leadership team didn’t see. In the end, they were unanimous in their decision and agreed with staff leadership’s thinking.”

Guideline #6 – Be transparent and lead not only for the organization as it stands today, but also for the organization you will lead in the future

We had been reviewing our benchmarks and evidence was suggesting that we might need to exit Direct Loan Servicing.  We knew the organization wasn’t ready.  We committed to transparency and openly shared our milestones and our concerns.  It was an uncomfortable way to lead—my peers thought we were crazy and we risked losing good staff.  We laid out the issues in staff meetings—the challenges, the questions, that data we were collecting, the milestones, and what would happen if we didn’t hit the milestones—both to the organization—and to staff.  We even let them know when we thought a decision to stay or leave would be made. Everyone stuck with us.

 To go through that transition, we were not just leading the organization we had that day. We were also leading the organization we were going to create. The audience was both our current staff and our future staff. If we hadn’t prepared our staff for a big strategic move like the one we were about to make, which required losing positions, the team that remained would have no trust.

Once we left the Board conversation with a decision, we immediately laid out the issues in a full staff meeting—the challenges, the questions, the data we were collecting, the milestones, and what would happen next. This was a very emotional meeting but when we made the announcement that we were exiting Direct Loan servicing, no one was surprised, and no one questioned it. Doing things this way was uncomfortable for the organization and uncomfortable for ourselves as leaders, but it sustained the staff’s trust in leadership because we didn’t surprise them, our decisions made sense to them, and they had an understanding of where we were going and what their role would be.”

Guideline #7 – Accept not having answers as a leader in the face of uncertainty

Scott Giles: “I had to learn the hard way to allow a grieving process to take place and not pretend I had answers when I didn’t. Most of us as leaders have gotten to where we are by solving problems and being able to present compelling visions of the future. The visions we prize the most have the greatest certainty. During periods of change, that works for you if you are right but against you if you are wrong. There is a line to walk. You need to be compelling and inspirational enough for people to pull in the right direction. But, if you act too certain, the next time you have to shift dramatically your vision gets called into question. The desire to go in and fix everything to give people confidence and security is a mistake.”

Climate Change and the Nonprofit Sector After COP21

Photograph: COP21

Photograph: COP21

At the Climate Talks in Paris this year, countries agreed to make emissions commitments and meet again in 5 years to measure progress. In addition, some more prosperous countries pledged to help poorer countries with $100 Billion in aid to help them meet these commitments. While there are no sanctions set for countries who fail to set or meet their emissions commitments, the agreement could provide some powerful incentives for change.

While in the US, there is still much political debate about climate change, a recent poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication indicated that 63% people in the US believe global warming is happening. However, in the same poll, only 48% agreed that global warming is caused by human activities. And only 41% of respondents believed that most scientists think global warming is happening (despite the fact that others studies have shown that 97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is occurring and is likely due to human activities).

In a landscape where nations are agreeing to cut emissions, yet the American population is still split on the role of humans in global warming, what roles can the nonprofit sector play? A recent article from Inside Philanthropy urged that philanthropy could help to build upon the historic agreement and commitment of resources at COP21. While interest in and understanding of the importance of climate change has grown in recent years, funding for environment and animal-related causes went up only 8% since 2007 according to Foundation Center data. Inside Philanthropy cites some potential reasons why philanthropists have not jumped on the issue, including an aversion to risk and tendency to be too rigid about priorities and metrics for success. In addition, many big funders may not believe in climate change. However, several big players in the field, such as the MacArthur Foundation, have called for greater effort -- from across government, the private sector, and philanthropy in order to address climate change through policy, innovation and education, and are putting their funding power behind some of these initiatives.

Through public education and identifying ways to reduce emissions, the nonprofit sector has the potential to both increase public concern for and help address the underlying factors that lead to climate change. While much good work is being done in the sector, including by some of our current and previous clients, there is ample room for more funding, advocacy, action and innovation in the field.