Apply New Insights to your Organization
To advance learning on leadership and organizational transformation, the Next Generation of Human Services Initiative developed case studies that exemplify the complex and real-world challenges and opportunities in moving to improved outcomes and impact.
These case studies feature real-world experiences and outline complex and relevant situations that human services innovators will encounter. Our recommendation, is that leaders in the field bring these cases to their organizations, incorporate them into professional development sessions as teaching tools, address the guiding questions that accompany each case with their teams, and use the cases as a reference point to inspire new insights, innovations, and best practices for the field.
In the Summer of 2000, when Dr. Cynthia Croom arrived as the newly appointed Executive Director of the Metropolitan Action Commission (MAC), she knew she had to lead the organization through a major transformation to achieve new outcomes and legitimacy. There were lines of people, desperately needing rent or utility assistance or access to other emergency services, who never seemed to attain economic stability. Equally concerning was the severe financial mismanagement that had landed the agency on the precipice of closure for noncompliance with federal funding regulations. Both issues reflected a siloed, fragmented organization that could not deliver on its mission to break the cycle of poverty.
Rebuilding the organization was not going to be easy. MAC had both the reputation as a low-performing city agency and as a site handy for political favors vis-a-vis appointments. Those opinions hurt Croom, not only because she prided herself on being an excellent, transparent, ethical leader, but also because as a young, African American woman, she hated the idea that an agency run largely by people of color would be considered a site of low expectations. She knew the organization had dedicated, capable, hardworking team members who genuinely cared about the people they were serving. Yet, staff continued to receive low pay, which seemed driven by negative perceptions of MAC’s reputation She also knew that social and economic mobility could be more than a dream – and she wanted MAC to drive those outcomes. As a Head Start kid, Croom watched her mother navigate the human services system, weaving together supports to gain an education, open a business, and buy the family a home. “We learned economic supports were best when temporary and could not be a permanent source,” Croom said.
As she steeled herself for the task ahead, she pondered a set of key leadership questions and challenges she was facing: What new outcome and impact goals could create a “North Star” for transforming MAC? How could MAC redesign its structures and services to not only build sustainable pathways out of poverty but also enhance social and economic mobility for customers? What steps would she need to take to shift the organizational culture and foster leaders who could sustain long-term innovation and change? And, importantly, as an African American woman, how would she engage and mobilize stakeholders in a city with a legacy of structural and systemic racism?
In late 2013, David Stillman, Assistant Secretary of the Economic Services Administration (ESA) within the Washington Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), recalled an encounter with a young man at DSHS a couple of years prior: “I can’t make my child support payments,” the man said. Stillman gently reminded the customer of his legal obligation. The man threw up his hands. “What’s the good of making payments if then I can’t feed my kids when I see them?” he cried.
The words had landed like a punch to Stillman, not only because they highlighted the grinding poverty many ESA customers were experiencing, but also because it starkly illustrated a central conflict that too many people interfacing with the ESA experienced: they were not moving out of poverty, and in some cases, they were faring worse. “This will not be the legacy of the ESA,” Stillman thought, which became a mantra and propelled him and his colleagues forward in seeking new ways of working to not only decrease poverty, but also increase economic mobility and family wellbeing for ESA customers.
Part of that work meant reforming operations within the ESA and part of it meant partnering to implement system-wide accountability for improving outcomes for customers across the human services system. Key to their success would be navigating several pressing questions. What ecosystems, programs, and practices could be leveraged to transform their siloed, regulatory system into one of shared accountability for reducing poverty and inequality? What personal and structural values, power, and leadership shifts would need to occur to enact a person-centered, equity-focused plan to reduce intergenerational poverty? How should the leadership team manage the pace and scope of change, both at the agency and the systems levels? Finally, if new levels of shared accountability were established, how might they embed the practice of sharing power with people experiencing poverty?
“Programmatically, Jeremiah Program (JP) has seen a ten-fold increase in applications since 2020, and is experiencing the highest enrollment in the organization’s history. We have been able to meet this demand through investments made in program design and staffing; In 2020 we partnered with 374 families (more than 900 moms and children) in seven communities across five states, and in 2021 we partnered with 1,100 moms and children, more than 475 families.”