For more than three decades, the nonprofit organization LEAVEN has been operating as the financial emergency room for the Fox Cities, applying a Band-Aid to stop the bleeding on clients’ fiscal crises and then connecting them to other resources in the community.
Gradually, though, Mary Parsons, the organization’s executive director, developed an inkling that LEAVEN could help its clients more efficiently on their way to self-sufficiency. In 2016, the organization undertook a strategic planning process and learned many of its clients were failing to follow through with other resources.
LEAVEN ran recidivism data and learned people were coming to the organization more frequently than what’s intended. Poverty has grown more persistent and homelessness more pervasive than when the organization began 31 years ago.
“Because they’re so mired in the day-to-day of just meeting their basic needs, they had little or no focus on prevention, so they weren’t connecting with the other resources,” Parsons says.
The idea for a one-stop resource center had been germinating for some time, but was put on hold when a LEAVEN (Limited Emergency Assistance Valley Ecumenical Network) funder suggested the organization connect with something called POINT. The three area Community Foundations — Greater Green Bay, Fox Cities and Oshkosh — launched POINT, or Poverty Outcomes and Improvement Network Team, in response to persistent poverty problems in Northeast Wisconsin.
Parsons admits she was skeptical at first of the process, which pairs continuous improvement experts from industry or manufacturing with nonprofits to offer guidance on streamlining processes and using data to drive decision-making. She feared it might slow down efforts. The opposite, however, proved true, she quickly learned.
Tim Murphy, quality and continuous improvement education manager at Oshkosh Corp., worked with LEAVEN. He helped the organization implement a client tracking system, a digital record that’s accessible to all partnering organizations and saves clients the fear, shame and trauma of having to repeatedly share their story.
Through the work, Parsons says she and her staff learned the value of engaging clients as well as gathering and evaluating data and testing small-scale changes. The process, she says, accelerated the organization’s ability to make change and prepared it to launch a $1 million capital campaign to expand and renovate its campus.
“When we were then ready to launch our capital campaign and move forward with our
plans, we had great data to support why it was needed,” she says. “Because we had piloted it with several partners, we knew it was going to be successful.”
The renovated campus in Menasha will include several co-located partners as well as visiting, part-time partners. That “warm hand-off” and proximity will increase the likelihood that clients will follow up on seeking additional services.
Parsons says LEAVEN has so embraced continuous improvement, it has hired a community resource coordinator to develop systems and processes and take data and turn it into information and insights to drive better decision-making. It also added Oshkosh Corp.’s Murphy to its board.
Continuous improvement roots
POINT developed in 2016 out of funders’ concerns about poverty rates remaining high despite the economy’s recovery after the Great Recession.
In the region’s three most populous counties — Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago — poverty hovered near, or even exceeded, levels before the 2008 recession, according to a POINT case study. In addition, a 2016 United Way report found 41 percent of Winnebago County residents struggle to meet basic needs for housing, food and health care.
Concurrently, employers were struggling to find workers for higher-paying, higher-skilled jobs. The goal became to give people tools to find good jobs, stable housing and other resources to become self-sufficient.
POINT was launched by the Basic Needs Giving Partnership, which is funded by the U.S. Venture Fund for Basic Needs from the annual U.S. Venture Open golf outing, with additional money from the J. J. Keller Foundation and other community partners. It supports the Fox Cities, Greater Green Bay and Oshkosh Community Foundations.
Efforts grew out of the work of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI). ThedaCare and Prevea Health had worked with the organization on continuous improvement efforts. IHI has begun to expand its focus to include promoting community-wide improvements in health and wellbeing. POINT engaged with IHI on an 18-month project to teach continuous improvement methodology tools to nonprofits.
Eventually, local business leaders versed in continuous improvement methodology began to take over the work. Jason Schulist, who formerly served as vice president of continuous improvement for Appvion and is now president of the Generative Local Community Institute, formed a network of 30 to 40 coaches to help nonprofits with continuous improvement efforts.
“This region is actually really rich with continuous improvement skill sets,” says Lynn Coriano, project director for POINT, noting the region’s manufacturers, many of which have long embraced the methodology.
Coriano says the work is much about trust building and encouraging collaboration to tackle shared problems.
When she moved to the region from Seattle to take on her role 18 months ago, she wondered just how different Northeast Wisconsin’s three largest communities could be from one another. Quite, she quickly learned. Each has its own unique identity.
POINT formed action groups focused on jobs, housing, life skills and trauma-informed care. The initiative encourages organizations to think about addressing problems on a regional level. So, for example, in thinking about housing issues in Brown County, don’t just focus on that county, but rather on all Northeast Wisconsin.
In these groups, nonprofit staff and others join to identify strategies to impact poverty. Using improvement methods, they find and test new ways of working together to maximize impact.
“I feel like each of these individual communities has such community pride and such truly distinctive personalities,” says Amber Paluch, who oversees POINT for the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation as vice president of community engagement. “I think that the right groups are around the table because we have funders who really are thinking about the issue so broadly and not tying it to a particular neighbor or particular boundary.”
The continuous improvement focus has helped spur companies to get involved in the initiative, says Curt Detjen, executive director of the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region. Companies such as Oshkosh Corp. and ThedaCare have stepped up with both increased financial contributions and human capital.
Jodie Larsen, vice president of community engagement for Oshkosh Corp., says working with POINT is an ideal fit for Oshkosh Corp. Foundation Inc. and its mission. The company gives financially to the initiative as well as encouraging employees to volunteer.
“We saw the impact that not only our dollars could make but also the gifts that our team members had from time and talent,” she says.
The work of POINT dovetails with the mission of ThedaCare, also a major financial supporter of POINT and the Basic Needs Giving Partnership.
“Poverty really is a critical driving factor of health,” says Paula Morgen, director of community health at ThedaCare. “The biggest hope for us is that we can elevate the health status of people across the community. By impacting poverty, you can impact so many health factors.”
The goal of the work is to put an end to poverty, but all the stakeholders know that objective will be a long, possibly never-ending journey. For Coriano, it’s about focusing on improving the processes.
“It’s two different sides of the same coin. No poverty versus a really thriving, sustainable community. Those are two ways to come at it. I’d love us to create the space for that.”