Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving, examining the best places to work among social good businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Denver: And in our continuing series, Better Than Most, today we are going to feature the Nebraska Families Collaborative based in Omaha. And here to join us is their President and CEO, Dave Newell.
Thanks for joining us, Dave, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Dave: Thanks for having me.
Denver: Why don’t we begin by having you tell us about the history of The Nebraska Family Collaborative and the goals and missions of the organization?
Dave: Sure. We’re a member-based nonprofit that was created back in 2009 in response to an initiative that the state of Nebraska was launching and we provide the ongoing child welfare, child protection services for the State of Nebraska for about 5,000 kids annually. We serve the greater Omaha area which is about two counties of the state and it’s about half of the child welfare population for our state. The greater Omaha area is really the only urban part of the state and that’s the part that we’re responsible for. And we’re nationally accredited as a network provider and we have about 50 agencies that are in our network and we provide the full continuum of care for the kids and families from home-based services to out of home services for all of those kids.
Denver: Fantastic. Well, you’re also considered to be one of the very best nonprofit organization to work for and I want to examine as to what makes NFC such a special place. Some organizations, they have a feedback culture. Others may say they have a coaching or data-driven culture. What word or phrase, Dave, would you use to describe your culture?
Dave: I would say it’s both data-driven and the feedback culture both internally as in regards to feedback and also externally would be how I would describe us.
It’s probably the most important thing because if the culture isn’t healthy… and in child protection, it’s very challenging to create a healthy environment because our employees experience a lot of secondary trauma. All the kids and families we serve have had very difficult experiences in their life and so as a result of that, even just sitting down and hearing their stories is a painful experience often times. And so, if we don’t take care of the staff, then they are not in a position to be caring and nurturing to the kids and the families that they’re working with.
Denver: In light of all your other responsibilities, I know you have a lot, Dave, how important is creating and nurturing the corporate culture for you?
Dave: It’s probably the most important thing because if the culture isn’t healthy… and in child protection, it’s very challenging to create a healthy environment because our employees experience a lot of secondary trauma. All the kids and families we serve have had very difficult experiences in their life and so as a result of that, even just sitting down and hearing their stories is a painful experience often times. And so, if we don’t take care of the staff, then they are not in a position to be caring and nurturing to the kids and the families that they’re working with.
Denver: It makes an awful lot of sense. What are some of the things that you do to influence and shape the culture? Do you try to model certain behaviors through your actions?
Dave: In some respects, I try to be a servant leader and so one thing that I hear from our staff is I don’t have a designated parking spot which is actually not a big deal to me. But actually, parking at our location is at a premium. So, just even little things where I don’t consider myself any more important than the rest of the staff and so I don’t have a designated parking spot, I think most of our staff feel that I’m approachable and they can give me feedback on anything and that I’ll listen to it and if it’s something that we can act on, then we’ll do it.
One of the things that my COO and I do is, out of 6 mark with our new staff, we sit down with them and do a check-in and we ask them what’s working at the agency for them and what’s not working. And we’ve made a variety of changes over the years based on the feedback that we did at those six-month check-ins.
Denver: What are some of those changes been?
Dave: Sometimes it’s like a really simple thing. For example, all of our staff have smartphones but when individuals were in training, we were giving them smartphones late in the training process. And what we were finding is a lot of the critical communication that they would have received through their smartphones, our new employees weren’t getting because we haven’t given them the phones yet. This is an example and so, we said, “Oh, we need to change that.” So, we implemented giving them phones very early in the process so that the communication wouldn’t break down.
We, for a lot of our staff, too, as a result of feedback, we have changed training several times and we’ve now developed a mentoring program for the staff. We’ve changed our on-call system, which especially for new employees who is kind of daunting and now the way we’ve restructured our on-call system, I think it’s much more supportive to the bulk of employees. And so, a lot of changes did happen as a result of feedback that we received.
I’d say the biggest one for me and for us is that we always want to put the kids and the families first in everything that we do.
Denver: Yeah. It really does pay to have your ear to the ground. Tell us a little bit about your core values and how you try to communicate and reinforce those values across the organization?
Dave: So, I’d say the biggest one for me and for us is that we always want to put the kids and the families first in everything that we do, and so we reinforce that in a lot of different ways. We have quarterly meetings that are for all of our employees but also open up to the community. We start each one of those meetings with what we call a mission moment where a staff will share a story, a success story around a child or a youth or someway that we’re trying to improve the system for kids. And so, we start each meeting with that.
Our board meetings are also started with mission moment where we’ll have different staff from the agency come and present to the board of directors and give a story about a child or family or system improvement that we did that’s resulted in better outcomes for kids and families. And then also at these quarterly meetings I was talking about earlier, we do community recognition where we have partners in the community who help us achieve our mission and so any staff can nominate those people and tell their story about how they helped us support a child or family or improve the system. So, we try to build that in especially any of our meetings.
Denver: Yeah, that’s great because I do know how sometimes people in organizations can get disconnected from the mission particularly people in the administrative roles and we certainly have done some significant things to make sure that doesn’t happen and everybody has that present in front of them at all times. You mentioned a moment ago that you are a data-driven culture. It’s one of the phrases that you chose. How does your organization use technology to improve the way you go about doing your work and what influence do you think it has on the workplace culture?
Dave: I think it has, here again, has a significant impact. So, I mentioned earlier that our staff all have smartphones and when they started, they didn’t. And so we have found that deploying smartphones to our staff, that has been a major improvement both for internal communication and external communication because a lot of the kids and families we serve, they often times communicate through text. And before, we just had kind of antiquated cellphones that were difficult to text on and not easy to work with. And so, we saw a major improvement with that. We are now in the process of rolling out tablets for our staff and a lot of the paperwork that they have to do, we’re going to be migrating to that being electronic where individuals and families can complete paperwork via tablet rather than paper. So, we’re excited about that, too.
Then as far as the data goes, there’s a ton of performance measures associated with our contract with the state. We have steadily made progress on all those. So for those, we gather up that data at whatever frequency we need to gather and some of it is weekly, some of it is monthly, some of it is quarterly and so forth, and we’re always communicating that back to the staff so that they can see, “Okay. Here are performance measures where we’re improving on and here are some that we’re struggling with”, and then having a CQI process around the ones that we need to improve.
Denver: So you have that dashboard in front of people at all times.
Denver: What have been some of your efforts around diversity, inclusion and equity?
Dave: Starting at the board level is– when I started our board of directors was all Caucasian. And now as our board has evolved over time, we now have about of a third of our quarter, individuals of color. We are line workforce. We’ve done really well of nearing the local population as far as demographics are aligned. Workforce is very reflective of the local community. Where we need to continue to develop is in our middle management and upper management that we haven’t made as much progress. And so, we actively recruit people of color and we’re also looking internally of how do we develop our existing workforce so that they can move up the leadership chain of command and have opportunities at all levels of the organization. So, we’ve made a lot of progress but we’re not where we want to be yet.
Denver: Right. And it sounds like just listening to you, you are never going to be happy with whatever the status quo is going to be.
Dave: No. It’s always going to continue to move forward.
Denver: It never ends in improving.
Dave: That right. Absolutely.
Denver: I speak to CEOs all the time who want to change the culture but they really just don’t know how to go about it or where to begin. What advice would you give to them?
Dave: I think the big thing is you just have to start, and it is incremental. I’ve been here seven years and we’ve made tremendous progress when I look back over a seven-year period. But especially during the early years, it went quite slow. And I think as we have gotten more solid and since we are a young organization, we have a much healthier culture today than we did seven years ago. But we had to start and we just had to pick something to work on and once we made sufficient progress on that, then you have to move on to the next thing. And I would say that the majority of our staff has been here all that time. I would say that the organization is much healthier than we were seven, eight years ago.
Denver: It sounds like from what you just said, don’t try to do it all at once. Just pick something that is important and focus on that and get it right and then just move on from there.
Dave: And then communicate it back to the staff.
Denver: Absolutely. Well, Dave Newell, the President and CEO of the Nebraska Families Collaborative, I want to thank you so much for being with us today. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Dave: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure being on.
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