The following is a conversation between Angela Williams, President & CEO of Easterseals, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: 2019 will mark the Centennial anniversary of Easterseals, that is originally known as the National Society for Crippled Children. The organization has a rich history and continues to evolve and modernize. And here to talk about all of that with us is Angela Williams, the president and CEO of Easterseals. Good evening, Angela, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Angela: Good evening, Denver, and thank you so much for having us on the show.
Denver: One hundred years, Wow! That’s a lot of history. Share a little bit of it with us, including the significance of the name, Easterseals.
Angela: I’d like to just tell you a little bit about the history of the birth of the Seal. Actually, if I go back to 1907, we were founded by an Ohio businessman, Edgar Allan, who lost his son in a streetcar accident. So, because there was no medical services that were adequate to save his son, he sold his business and began a fundraising campaign to build a hospital in his hometown of Elyria, Ohio. Allan was surprised to learn that children with disabilities were often hidden from public view, and it inspired him to make a difference. Thus, was founded the National Society for Crippled Children, the first organization of its kind. But Denver, to your question, the birth of the Seal, 30 years later in 1934, the organization launched the first ever “Easterseals” campaign to raise money for its services.
To show their support, donors placed a seal on envelopes and letters, and many of us may remember that going door to door and selling those seals and licking those stamps and putting them on envelopes and letters. In fact, The Cleveland Plain Dealer cartoonist, J.H. Dohaney, designed the first Seal. And if I could, we changed our name from the National Society for Crippled Children in 1952 to the new organization, Easterseals. So you have the Seal; it’s emerged over the years, and the campaign continued and triggered nationwide expansion for people who wanted to give to those that were disabled and in need.
Denver: You know, just listening to you, Angela, I can almost taste the glue on my tongue again from licking all those seals when I was a kid. I remember that so well.
How are you structured? Where are you across the country and beyond? And what’s the structure of the organization?
Angela: Denver, I am the president and CEO of the national office of Easterseals, and we are headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, but we have 71 affiliates throughout the country, and those 71 affiliates operate in thousands of sites and in thousands of homes across the country.
Denver: Let’s talk about the range of your programs which are for both children and adults– with disabilities and special needs– and they’re organized under four major rubrics; live, learn, work, and play. Maybe you can give us a sense of each, starting with” live.” What are your initiatives there, Angela?
Angela: Thank you, Denver, for asking that question because, when people think of Easterseals, they’re still thinking about those stamps, and they don’t recognize the incredible breadth and depth of the organization. These rubrics of live, learn, work, and play help to really structure and explain who we are. Starting with “live,” there are folks that need assistance just in their daily lives. So, the programs that helps support those initiatives can be such things as respite– providing services of in-home care, or providing services of adult daycare for seniors that don’t have a place to go and being cared for by others – their family members or others – who need to go to work. When you think about live, think about assistive technology. Think about – not only just people think about wheelchairs – but technology that allows a person that does not have use of their limbs to still be able to communicate and to be able to be a part of society, a part of their family, and a part of their communities.
Then, when we talk about “learning,” we have childcare services that we offer around the country. We’re the largest provider of care and training for children with autism, and we work with those children to be able to allow them to learn and to grow and to participate in society. The other thing that we offer is children services. We provide early intervention. We have an online tool called Make the First Five Count. What that is is a tool for parents with younger children to go online and take a test, answer questions about their child’s behavior and abilities, and it flags whether there’s potential development issues that the parent needs to know about.
Then when we talk about” work,” we offer employment services around the country, training. We work with individuals with disabilities to allow them to be full participants and to earn money in order to live and survive. There’s a statistic, Denver, that I think is absolutely shocking, and that is the statistic that 80% of people with disabilities live in poverty. So how do we solve for that? One of those ways is to make sure that they too have an opportunity to be employed.
The last framing that we use is “play.” We know that play means being able to relax and enjoy, to be able to engage with others, even enjoy nature. What I’m really pleased about is that our affiliates, a number of them, have wonderful, incredible, accessible campsites across the country. Think about this. In the summertime, where a number of kids across America get to go to camp for the summer. Well, children with disabilities have that opportunity as well through Easterseals.
…we touch Americans from birth to senior citizen status. We’re a holistic organization. So, as we talk about who we are, we are America’s enabler. Enabler in the sense that we enable people to have hope. We enable people to live full and productive lives no matter what your status, no matter what your age is. No matter what your socioeconomic status is.
Denver: Is it a challenge, Angela, for an organization that does have such a breadth and scope of services, even with these rubrics, to have people know exactly what you do?
Angela: You’re right. That’s because we touch Americans from birth to senior citizen status. We’re a holistic organization. So, as we talk about who we are, we are America’s enabler. Enabler in the sense that we enable people to have hope. We enable people to live full and productive lives, no matter what your status, no matter what your age is. No matter what your socioeconomic status is.
Denver: Following up on this train of thought, Easterseals recently did a rebrand with a fresh, sleek, and modern look. How did you think about it? What were you looking to say? And what has the impact been?
Angela: We are really excited about the rebrand. Let me just say this. This is on the cusp of the celebration of our 100 years as an organization and a part of American fabric. So, we do have a rebrand that is fresh, is exciting. We have a logo that is just incredible. It’s Easterseals, and we have… almost looks like sunshine, rays around the “E”. But then the other thing that – Denver, I’m not sure if you know this, but we have a tagline – “All abilities, limitless possibilities.” That is going to be presented to America to reintroduce Americans to Easterseals and to introduce us to some for the very first time. When we talk about all abilities, limitless possibilities, we’re celebrating joy, we’re celebrating hope, we’re celebrating possibilities. This is really incredible, and we’re asking folks to stay tuned and watch for commercials and PSAs, and you’ll just see how we are celebrating life of all abilities.
Denver: That is so smart. So many organization I think focus on the problems, and when you’re focusing on the solutions and what you’ve been able to do for people, that really elevates people, and I think it’s also a good strategy for raising more money myself.
Angela: Yes, thank you.
Denver: Speak a little bit about your business model… speaking of money, the different sources of revenue that support your work; and who are some of your key corporate partners?
Angela: Thank you. Let me start with our corporate partners because I really just appreciate all of our affiliates also, we appreciate the corporations that care about the work that we’re doing, that want to participate, that want to put a stake in the ground and say, “We want to partner because we believe in the work of Easterseals.” So, we are very grateful to have Comcast & NBC Universal. We have Century21; we have Amway, AC Moore. There are many, many more organizations, corporations. That is just to name a few of our leading ones. CVS has also been a fantastic corporate partner of ours. We’re just really excited because many more are coming and asking: “How can we work with Easterseals because we recognize how you provide a holistic approach to the issues facing this country?”
Now, you asked Denver, about our revenue sources; primarily, our revenue is generated from a number of different ways, starting with the services that we provide. Because we provide medical services, we are reimbursed through Medicaid. We are reimbursed through private insurers for the services that we provide. We also receive a number of government grants. For example, we provide grants for the senior community service employment program. This is a program the federal government funds through the Department of Labor to assist seniors that would like to get back into the workplace, and they are in a lower income bracket. It provides services to teach them how to interview, how to put a resume together, to get an internship and then job placement. Then, in addition to the government grants that we receive, we also have, as I just outlined, corporate sponsors. And then we have philanthropy, and also direct mail is one of our primary generators of revenue from the philanthropic side.
Denver: Let’s return to the Centennial for a moment. Aside from introducing your new look and your new messaging, what other things do you have planned, if you can give us a sneak peek for 2019?
Angela: We are really excited, Denver, I have to say, to gather in Washington, D.C. the third week of March. We will have a special event at the Smithsonian American Art Museum– beautiful location, to celebrate Easterseals. And we are inviting our corporate partners; we’re inviting those that have been in service to Easterseals, our wonderful volunteers without whom we would not be where we are today from over the decades… coming back and celebrating them, celebrating our clients, and celebrating other leaders across the country. That’s one sneak peek. But in addition to that, we will have local events throughout the country. Each affiliate will be leading their own events. So, we have just a number of things planned to continue to elevate Easter sals and the great work that we’re doing.
Denver: You’re going to start the year off with a bang aren’t you, at the Rose Bowl Parade?
Angela: Thank you for bringing that up. That is absolutely the best way to start the year off. On January 1st, we are so excited. We are having the first ever Easterseals float in the Rose Parade. I want everyone to stay tuned and watch it. We will have on our float our clients and some of our employees. It will be really, really exciting. We’re so grateful to our Southern California affiliate for taking the lead and having the vision to start the year off right. Denver, watch on January 1, and look for the Easterseals float.
Denver: How cool is that? I’ll make it a point; I’ll be up. You’ve been the CEO of Easterseals for close to a year now. How would you describe, Angela, the corporate culture? And is there anything that you have done to help shape it and make it even better since you’ve arrived?
Angela: Since I started, as you can imagine, it’s been a team effort. One of the things our national office has tried to do is to make sure that our affiliates know that we exist to be in service to them. We are the brand. We may own the brand, but it is our affiliates that are out there in communities, in homes, touching people’s lives– that are actually making the difference and making the brand come alive. We together are working to develop and continue to elevate a culture of service because at our heart, that’s who we are. And if you go back to the founding of our organization, that’s what our founder was about– service to others.
Denver: Tell us a little bit about your personal journey, Angela, on your way to leading Easterseals, including the influence of your dad who was one of your role models.
Angela: My dad, when I was born, was a Baptist pastor in Anderson, South Carolina. From that, he joined the Navy as a chaplain. But over the years, I watched my parents always be in service and role models, and leaders, and on the forefront. My dad was also one of those Baptist pastors that was a leader in the Civil Rights movement, and it was all about affecting the lives of people that were disenfranchised, affecting the lives of people that were in need and deserved a seat at the table and deserved to be considered for who they are, and not as someone different. So, that has totally influenced my life of service. Denver, I don’t know if you know this, but I’m also an ordained minister. Graduatedfrom seminaryy and continue in my personal life… a life of service to others. So, it’s all about wrapping that into: How do I give back?
And I choose to do so in my private life, but also in the marketplace. I served in the military on active duty for six-and-a-half years as an Air Force JAG. I served in Desert Storm. From there, I worked in the federal government as an assistant United States attorney. I worked in the Department of Justice. From there, I worked on Capitol Hill in the United States Senate, serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee staff as Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s Special Counsel on criminal law.
From there, I also served President Bush, George HW Bush, and President Bill Clinton on their Hurricane Katrina Foundation. My role there was to serve as interfaith liaison and helped to give $25 million to churches that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. From there, I also served with the YMCA, the national office for 11 years. So, there’s this thread of service throughout my own personal background. And I see all those varied experiences as contributing to where I am today. I have to tell you, Denver, this is my dream job.
Denver: I could tell you, it sounds like you could be 110 years old with everything you’ve done so far.
Angela: Denver, watch it. Watch it, Denver.
Denver: An extraordinary resume. Let me close with this, Angela. Often, the impact of an organization can best be told through a story. Share one with us, and the impact that Easterseals has had on an individual… and then in turn, their family.
Angela: That’s a good one. I will share with you my own personal story. Not many people know this, but I do have a grandson that has autism. My son and his family recently moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and one of our affiliates runs a number of Headstart programs. I called our CEO down there, Donna Davidson, and said, “Donna, could you please help my grandson? He needs to be in a Headstart program, and he needs to be learning.” And she opened up her doors. My husband and I were just talking about this last night about how he’s really starting to talk and forming sentences… and how he’s doing so well in school, and how every morning, his clothes are laid out for him; he gets dressed; he has his little backpack, has his lunch and is ready. The first child of the three ready to go to school. That says a lot about how our people really give their hearts, put themselves on the line to make a difference in people’s lives.
Denver: What a beautiful story to end on. Angela Williams, the president and CEO of Easterseals, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website, the information that’s there, and how listeners can help support this work if they should be so inclined?
Angela: Thank you. I’d like to say to your audience, we would love for you to look at our website and see the great work that Easterseals is doing… and let you know that we need your financial support. You can log on to www.easterseals.com. Please donate today. Children need your support. Our seniors need your support. The veterans that we serve need your support. Thank you.
Denver: Great. Thanks so much, Angela. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Angela: Thank you. It was my pleasure to be on the show with you, Denver. Thank you so much for creating the opportunity. And thank you so much for what you do.
Denver: Our pleasure. I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
Denver: Let me ask you this, Angela. How important is creating and nurturing the corporate culture at Easterseals in light of all your other responsibilities?
Angela: Really creating a strong corporate culture is important to the vibrancy and sustainability of an organization. Without it, an organization flounders, and it doesn’t know who it is. I believe that corporate culture serves as the backbone for any organization. And that is why it is the responsibility of me as the national president and CEO; it is the responsibility of our national board to work together to ensure that we have the best corporate culture so that our staff can thrive, and in their thriving, they’re able to give their best and show up in the best possible way to serve our clients.
Denver: Can you give me an example of how you try to model behavior to shape that culture?
Angela: Well, Denver, I have to say I’m a joyous person. I am a hopeful person, and I laugh a lot. So, as I’m walking through the hall, as I talk to people, I’m always joyful. It doesn’t matter how cold it is outside in windy Chicago. It doesn’t matter if we don’t have all the revenue that we have because then I’m hopeful that there are people like your listeners and others that want to give and want to be a part of the great organization that we have. Then, the glass is always half-full because I continue to see on a daily basis how people show up to work, how they dig in, how they work together, how they work as a team, and how they don’t take on this mindset of being territorial… or “That’s not my job,” but rather say, “Let’s all pitch in. We’re in this together.”
Denver: I’ve talked to so many CEOs about their corporate culture, and when I ask them what the most important thing is, one of the most common answers I get back is: optimism and positivity. It is one of the few things that is contagious, and that positive energy and that relationship energy is so important. What about transparency? What do you do to be a fully, radically transparent organization? Any examples of how you go about that?
Angela: When it comes to transparency, that is something that we have worked with as an organization, and I believe we’ve done an excellent job. Just even at the national office with the national staff, we’ve been transparent in terms of holding staff meetings to let everybody know what’s going on. We talk about what are the big milestones for the year and ask people to see how they can contribute.
Secondly, as it relates to our national board, we invite our local affiliate CEOs, as well as their volunteers, to attend our board meetings. So, those are very transparent. After each board meeting, we host a Web-X that is called our Town Hall. And on that Town Hall, we recap all of the things that were discussed at the national board meeting. In addition to that, we are now inviting through a recent governance change our affiliate volunteers to be able to serve on our national board committees. And we have a separate group of CEOs that represent all of the affiliates, a 10-person group, and they also sit in on all of our board meetings, sit in on our board committee meetings, and work and partner with me to create the strategies for the national organization.
Denver: The biggest problem most organizations have are around diversity, equity, and inclusion. What are your initiatives in that area?
Angela: With respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion, we are working to model that not only on our staff, but I had an exciting conversation with the chair of our nominating committee just last week. That is our number one goal. I’m excited to say that our national board really will be leading the way in that effort.
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