What follows is Part II of an interview I conducted with Joseph LeRoy, CEO and President of HopeSparks, the winner of the 2015 Top Places to Work, Small Organization category. HopeSparks is Tacoma non-profit that serves families and at-risk children. This is part of my NW Heroes, a series of interviews with top NW leaders. For more in the series, see the links at the end of this article.
Helping Team Members Deal with Job Stress
Lauren: What you do to help your staff deal with the pressure and the stress of the working with at risk and abused children?
Joe: I remember years ago, some of the admin staff would say, ‘Why is so-and-so so grumpy today?’ When we asked the person why, they would tell us: ‘I just got out of a session with a nine-year-old girl who was sexually abused and you expect people to walk out of their office and walk the hall with a smile. You don’t know what we were doing in our offices with the doors closed.’ We’re doing a much better job with that and we’re much more understanding with each other’s work.
We call it trauma stewardship. It’s known as vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue, but essentially the concept is that you’re impacted by the stories and things you see and hear in a way that affects and changes you. There can’t be this sort of ‘suck it up and deal with it’ approach because then people providing the services can get burned out. Then they’re not delivering a good service. Sometimes your judgment and ethical decision making gets clouded. I think through the years, especially early on, I watched clinicians burn out and I didn’t do enough to support them, even though I saw the signs and symptoms. So now our clinical director and both of our birth-to-three and our mental health programs build in what we call reflective supervision into their team. Our clinical director went out and did a vicarious trauma training to all of our programs: talking about it, being more open, and not being afraid to call each other out on it. It’s real and it doesn’t only impact the clinicians, it impacts the other people around them too. Our clinical director just did a vicarious trauma training with our front desk, intake staff and some of our admin staff. They said afterwards, ‘Whoa!’ we’ve been impacted by this too and we didn’t realize it.’
I also think we have an advantage as a non-profit in that while we’re outcome driven, we’re not hammering at our people for more productivity, cut this, do this, do that. One of our clinicians who’s been here 25 years calls it ‘therapist hell’ when you go work in these larger agencies or entities. He says it’s therapist hell because nobody cares about the client, they just care about everything else getting done. It’s a churn mill. We have the opportunity in our agency to say, ‘No, we’re not going to do it that way.’ I think that is what sets us apart, that’s why people want to come here. We just interviewed a therapist who told us, ‘I’ve been waiting for a job opening for two years so I could apply here.’
Measuring Organizational Performance
So what do you measure?
We do have productivity expectations for our programs and contract obligations. So yes, we have a number of home visits we expect from our home visitors and a number of clinic visits we expect from our therapists but we’re building training and consultation all around that. On the admin side, we’re bringing in grants and funders. Grants are about seven percent of our revenue. Fees that we collect in insurance billings are about 36-37%. We are about 51% government funded. That’s a mix of city, state, and county. We also have a lot of evidence-based program contracts that are mixed in that government pie. Our sexual assault program dollars are in that pie as well. The rest is events and major gifts, which are smaller than we’d like, but I think that’s often the case in our sector.
Our last all-staff meeting was actually the day of the Tacoma Business Examiner’s Best Places to Work event. It was such a perfect day because we had this really cool all-staff meeting and then it ended with receiving the award that night. We tell success stories in our all-staff meetings. We used to have to pull teeth to get somebody to stand up and in front of the entire agency and share a success—because there’s this attitude amongst clinicians like, ‘I didn’t really do anything’ and ‘my client did all the work.’
I’m guessing therapists are hardwired not to want be in the spotlight.
Yes! But now it’s like we don’t have enough time for success stories because everybody wants to share. One of our newer therapists who just had a one-year work anniversary told a story about when she was first hired her. She said, ‘When Joe called and told me who my supervisor was going to be, I was really scared because I was intimidated by her. But I’ve learned that she’s making me the best clinician I could ever be and I’m getting this high level of support.’ I think we set the bar high and we work hard and we support the heck out of each other. So I think that’s how we get high productivity.
Future Vision for HopeSparks
What’s your vision for HopeSparks?
That’s a good question. I think our programs are kind of like mini-businesses in the sense that some of them are innovative and growing and just doing amazing things, and some are in decline. The question is, how do we innovate them? I’ve really started to treat the programs as individual entities within the whole. Our strategic plan right now addresses the agency as a whole. But I really feel like the meat is going to come when we can dive in to do strategic planning on a program level, not just looking at them all as one thing. We grew fast over the last decade. I’m not so much interested in the next three to five year period growing at that rate. What I’m really interested in is continuing to be the best in what we do. I would love to build a really strong financial foundation and set the agency up for growth based on the fact that we can grow, if we want to, because we have the resources in place. I don’t want to chase dollars or opportunities just because they’re there. So we’ve said ‘no’ a lot through the years to things that we just we feel are out of our hedgehog.
We envision ourselves as a hub for training and very specialized services for families in Pierce County. Sort of like what Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress is to Kin County, very specialized services but still connected to the larger systems. They’re part of the larger health system but they’re also the hub for training and consultation for the rest of the county. We also pride ourselves on providing exceptional mental health services; quality over quantity and providing a stigma-reducing environment that is warm and welcoming. We believe that when families and individuals interface with the mental health system, that it needs to be a positive experience. If not, you run the risk of denying someone the critical help they need at a potentially critical time in their lives. That’s our vision with our mental health programs. Our clinical director did all of her training at Harborview and we have talked with Harborview about replicating their model here. Pierce County is a little bit of an anomaly because we have a for-profit entity that oversees our mental health system here, and we have five managed care organizations that have to play alongside this for-profit entity.
On the birth-to-three side, a lot of attention is now being paid to early brain development and early childhood diversity. That’s fantastic because there are a lot of opportunities there for us to do a lot of great things. We’re partnering more with doctors and I can see us growing. We do what’s called ‘Infant Mental Health’. It’s really parent-child relationship work. It’s an area we specialize in that continues to grow. We’re talking about doing some systems work there in terms of training other agencies within the county to be able to do that piece. So I really see us working more at a systems level. I would like us to be more of an intermediary. Funders really want to fund you to make a bigger impact in the community, so we’re thinking more along those lines now.
We’ve also recently committed to the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, High Impact Commitments of Nonprofit Organizations. The Alliance recently came out with as assessment tool that will measure us against other organizations. They did years of research and studied non-profits all around the country — the ones who are making high impact—to determine their common themes. They came up with ten common themes, and we’ve been selected to go through a first wave assessment with them where we’ll compare our organization to benchmark data from around the country. What I’d like to see is our current three year strategy plan and those commitments lined up over the next two to three years. Then we can assess ourselves against this benchmark data to see where we stand and work to strengthen the areas we’re weak in. Then we’ll reassess ourselves in two years and get ready for our next strategic planning process with all of that information driving the next process.