Ready or Not prepares organizations for success in rapidly changing times

The name says it all for this program.

Through Ready or Not, our goal is to assist health and human services organizations coping with a shifting economic and regulatory environment. Grantees receive financial support and expert assistance to:

  • Strengthen their core competencies
  • Improve capacity
  • Advance their mission
  • Ensure their financial sustainability.

It’s a time of profound change in the nation’s health care system, but what hasn’t changed is the strong need for services by the Foundation’s target populations — vulnerable older adults and young children impacted by poverty. Ready or Not participants are keenly aware of that, and they looked to the program for help to build their capacity with the end goal being improved organizational outcomes and effectiveness.

The Ready or Not experience was different for each and every grantee, as unique as the organizations themselves. Yet just as these not-for-profits share a mission of providing health and social services to individuals and families, there were common themes of growth and learning in their respective journeys in the program. And in the end, a sense of empowerment resulting from newfound clarity of who they are and what they do.

Leaders of not-for-profits are stretched thin – “It comes with the job,” said one executive director – yet they viewed their participation in Ready or Not as an investment in their agencies, their employees and the people they serve out in the community. Capacity building and other organizational needs were top of mind as they applied for and received financial support and consultant assistance from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York to strengthen their agencies.

Program participants included the following:

The Parkway Center

Increasing and/or improving organizational capacity is no small task, especially in a changing marketplace. But it’s key to sustainability, according to Kelly Walters, executive director of The Parkway Center in Utica, N.Y.

“When we first applied for the program, we had done some work as far as capacity building, and Ready or Not really helped us boost it to the next level,” she said. “It seemed like the perfect opportunity for funding to help us grow in capacity. But when we got accepted and started going through it, it turns out that it was a process that helped us; not only having the additional funds but the process helped us to grow in capacity.

“At the time, we weren’t thinking that we needed a name change, a re-branding, but that came out of the process, too,” Walters explained. “We changed our name because it reflects something that we are and the old name was something that we were. So that was a huge impact on us.”

The Parkway Center provides programs and services to individuals age 50 and above, empowering them to live healthy and vibrant lives. With daily workshops, fitness programs, hobby clubs, recreational and social activities, the not-for-profit promotes communities that are age-friendly. Last year it served more than 2,700 individuals.

“As a result of Ready or Not (Round 1), we also found that one of the areas where we needed more assistance was communications and marketing,” Walters said. “So two years ago we hired a communications/marketing director, which helped us to grow in visibility. Then in 2015 we went through another capacity-building process with a consultant we hired to help develop our new strategic plan for 2016 to ‘19. Some of the tools and processes we gained from Ready or Not helped us to move that forward because there were some bigger issues facing the organization that we really needed help sorting out through a process, rather than just doing a board/staff retreat.”

With help from the consultant hired under the Ready or Not grant, The Parkway Center tightened its focus and zeroed in on what the agency needed to do to build capacity.

“You’re trying to fix all these moving parts but in actuality it helps you to concentrate and focus on where you need to be to move forward,” she said. “This was going to the next level, strategically. Capacity building is the next level, and that’s what this program brings you to.”

Her organization, which serves the Greater Utica area and has over 1,100 members, has the tagline “It’s not age, it’s attitude.”

The timing of Ready or Not was perfect, according to Walters. The agency was trying to cope with state funding cuts and the Health Foundation program came at a time when management needed help to avoid what she called “panic mode.”

“This program gives you many of the tools you need,” she said. “I would hope that the Foundation would continue this. Our group was the first to go through it. It is crucial to nonprofits. Nonprofits are doing a lot more with a lot less. So giving them tools to sustain themselves and maybe even re-think who they are so that they can survive the changes is really a good investment of their dollars.”

Erie County Department of Senior Services

Another organization that participated in Ready or Not was the Erie County Department of Senior Services. Created in 1971, its mission is to promote the well-being of older adults through coordinated and cost-effective services that enhance their independence, dignity and quality of life.

“It really brought us as a department and a management team through a process that allowed us to position ourselves for future opportunities,” former Commissioner Randall Hoak said. “We didn’t know exactly what those opportunities would look like at the time but we were able to evaluate what we thought we were as a management team and what our employees thought we were as an organization. And we were able to conduct an inventory of the assets we had to help us carry out our mission of serving older adults in the community.”

The actual work started with an internal assessment to identify the beliefs and values of management and staff and look for areas of alignment specific to the triple aim, which Hoak described as an overarching goal among health care systems for better health, better care and lower costs.

With a number of longtime employees retiring, the time was right to redefine and reposition the department to better serve seniors.

“When I evaluated what was going on and really started looking at national trends and focused on what the National Office for the Aging was telling us about funding opportunities that were going to come, it became very clear that in order to be successful, we were going to have to do things differently,” Hoak said. “But we didn’t know exactly how and we weren’t sure how to engage the staff who remained that had been working together for 15, 20, 25 years; how to engage them in looking at new opportunities and doing their jobs a little bit differently. (Ready or Not) gave us a focus in terms of where we were aligned and didn’t necessarily know it.”

He said the process involved asking lots of questions among management and staff, including:

  • What is the Department of Senior Services?
  • And is it the first call for people looking for guidance and services or a provider of last resort?

Perceptions varied, he found.

“Another area that we found was out of alignment were attitudes and viewpoints of our governance structure, how we relate to the county Legislature. We started to dive into what was happening with health care reform, with the Affordable Care Act, with Medicaid redesign in New York,” Hoak said. “We started to identify opportunities that would be coming and then aligned them with our current strengths and programs that we’ve been successful with and looked for opportunities where we could bring value to health care.

“Now, what was great about Ready or Not was that after that internal assessment, we were able to then reach out to our existing partners — we contract with many community-based partners — and were able to incorporate that into some of our Ready or Not work.”

The grant “helped open our eyes and it pointed us in the direction of where we could find success,” he said. “We’re able to look at other communities across the country and see what works for them. We’re able to develop relationships with other foundations across the country, and that led to more opportunities.”

Participating in Ready or Not also demonstrated to employees that management was committed to capacity building.

“It showed that this was a priority,” Hoak said. “These are the types of things that we found ourselves talking about but not doing anything about because of the everyday work that comes along, the fires that you have to put out on a daily basis. This gave us structure and committed us to following through on activities and doing an in-depth internal assessment. Staff saw that this was serious, that it was going to take some time and that their time as part of this initiative was going to be time well-spent.”

Ardent Solutions

Also in Round 1 was Ardent Solutions, formerly the Allegany/Western Steuben Rural Health Network. Carrie Whitwood is director and Helen Evans is associate director of the agency, which collaborates with local, regional and statewide partners to improve community health outcomes, increase independence through safe and reliable mobility options, and decrease unintentional injuries and suicide risks.

“Ready or Not was more than we expected,” Whitwood said. “And it was interesting timing for us. We had been in a personnel contract under a different organization, another nonprofit who about that same time had to discontinue all the contracts for personnel. For us, this capacity building, this opportunity, couldn’t have come at a better time because we had to face what we considered was one of our worst crises: How do we move forward as an organization with the capacity we had without that personnel contract?”

The Ready or Not grant enabled Ardent Solutions to hire a consultant to help the agency navigate tough times.

“We had consultants before for strategic planning, but this wasn’t just in and out in a day,” she said. “Through this funding we were able to keep her longer term to help us walk through that planning process. She met with staff, she met with our board and some of our peer organizations to really do a good assessment of where we were.”

Ready or Not forced lots of positive action including a rebranding, she added.

“One of the first things we ended up doing to build our capacity was to get bids from different PEOs — personnel employer organizations,” Whitwood said. “We were able to secure that piece for our organization, that crucial piece of our infrastructure.”

Located in rural Wellsville, N.Y., Ardent Solutions has a mission to create synergy within and between systems, organizations, families and individuals that result in a strong culture of health and quality services for communities.

“One of the things that was surprising for us is when we went into the Ready or Not process and wrote our initial grant application, we really felt as though we were going to be focusing on data — data storage and manipulation, analysis,” said Helen Evans, associate director. “What we learned very quickly by going through the organizational life cycle process was that that wasn’t really our true need. It gave us an opportunity to open our eyes to the organization as a whole versus looking at it programmatically.”

Ready or Not got the ball rolling, according to Whitwood.

“What’s nice is the tools we were able to use — that life cycle self-assessment, as well as different board assessments, to really measure their engagement, to look at how they felt about the organization and what their role was,” Evans said. “We had been through some strategic planning processes before this came into play but I think we kind of struggled with that.

“Where as a rural health network our priorities are changing, the environment is changing, health care initiatives are changing, this gave us that opportunity to take a step back and really look at our own infrastructure, our own capacity, our governance and get a good baseline evaluation and then develop a strategic plan of how we were going to move forward. … It was a true culture change for us, both the staff and the board. They had to take a hard look at where we’ve been and where we’re going to go.”

Aurora of Central New York

Ready or Not was a similarly powerful experience for Aurora of Central New York, which received a Round 2 grant from the Wellness Foundation. Debra Chaiken is executive director of the Syracuse-based Aurora, a not-for-profit whose roots stretch back nearly a century. The agency promotes independence, opportunity and full access for individuals of all ages who are blind, visually impaired, deaf, hard-of-hearing, late deafened and deaf blind.

“The reason why we applied for it was there were a lot of things changing in our field,” Chaiken said. “Also, some of our traditional funding sources started to decline and we needed to really look at where we were aligned, come up with a new path and look at the direction we were going in order to turn ourselves around.”

Facing increased competition for contracts and with the state pushing industry collaborations and mergers, “we knew we needed to change,” she said. “And that’s why we were excited about this grant. It was going to establish a process and give us some consultant resources to really look at this.”

Another concern: shrinking resources that couldn’t keep up with a growing population of consumers.

“First we looked at what it would take for us to establish on our own some of the internal structures to expand, but we found that wasn’t really cost-effective,” Chaiken said. “It would be better for us to look at a larger agency that was concurrently set up administratively in terms of quality assurance, regulatory compliance and then ultimately billing, and to consider partnering with an agency that already had a structure in place.”

Hiring a consultant had a major impact on Aurora, she said.

“Our consultant took us through some focus groups with our constituents, which really kick-started the process not only on the staff and board levels but also people who use our services. That was really helpful,” Chaiken said.

Another part of the process identified the need for an organizational assessment.

“We knew that some of our systems really needed work, like our financial systems, our data collection systems,” she said. “So all of that process and that analytical work defined our next step.”

Succession planning was critical, she added.

“We have a lot of staff who are approaching retirement age and we needed to look at that in the context of the direction the agency was going,” Chaiken said. “So a lot of that had to be defined. And a lot of it was unknown so it was scary.”

As a result of the Ready or Not program, Aurora of Central New York changed dramatically in recent years including expanded expertise and greater value proposition.

“By allowing us the process to focus on all of this, all the resources that the Foundation gave toward this project really allowed our agency to take time and to focus, which it might not have done otherwise,” Chaiken said. “The tools they gave us to work with allowed us to take a framework and apply that approach to the whole change-management process. … It gave us clarity and a path to follow, a plan.”

The participants in Ready or Not say one thing is clear: It’s a powerful program that is making a difference at a time when not-for-profits and the people they serve need it most. They learned things about their organizations that they didn’t know before and along the way they gained greater self-awareness, a keener focus and new business and service opportunities. Now, as they continue to move from reactive problem solving to a heavier focus on strategic planning, they do so with improved confidence, a more sophisticated understanding of their organizational identity and a renewed commitment to their respective missions.