Recent events have compelled nonprofit organizations to change the way they get work done, how they deliver their services, and what they do to achieve a more just and equitable society. So, The Business of Giving has connected with those organizations that are doing this exceptionally well in a segment we call: The Paths Forward. Because there is more than just one way.

Denver: Today we’ll visit team members at Project ECHO, a global non-profit based at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque It leverages videoconferencing and case-based learning to diminish disparities in remote areas, fostering equality in health care, education, and civics through complimentary virtual learning and continuous mentorship.

We’ll begin with their founder and Director, Dr. Sanjeev Arora.

Dr. Sanjeev Arora:  And so we realized that this problem is not unique to the United States. In fact, in New Mexico where I live, at that time, 28,000 patients had been diagnosed with hepatitis C. Less than 1,500 had been treated, and I knew thousands would die if we didn’t get treatment to everyone. So I started ECHO with the idea that we must get treatment to everyone. And that’s how the model was created — to democratize the expertise of the university and get it to the last mile of healthcare.

A key feature of the Project ECHO culture is collaboration, and being able to work across departments as Saul, Kristine and Jeanette illustrate.

Saul: The reality is, I started at Project ECHO in 2015, and when I walked in the door, I found it to be like a beehive, just people working together in different pods. And so when I walked in, I knew that that was the place for me. There was a culture, I can tell, of working together, collaboration, and teamwork. And as I walked around, people came and introduced themselves to me.

Kristina: It’s called our I ECHO system. And so we had to roll this out to everybody because we’re changing the system from an old system to a new system. And so we had to do that to the U.S. partner groups and so we had multiple teams from different departments come together. And it was really something unique because we all brought different skill sets to the table. And in order to roll it out as successfully as we have so far, I think everybody needed to kind of contribute to that. It was like getting over those hurdles because it was a short turnaround time. So everybody had to collaborate, talk. We were communicating. And again, I think it really emphasized our values and how we live them out every day.

We’re talking about excellence in accountability. We’re talking about innovation and learning, joy of work, too, because we laughed a lot during this time. It wasn’t always easy, but we also made light of things and we’re able to kind of get through those hurdles to actually move forward and successively.

Jeanette: And so the managers gave their feedback and they said, we want to solve problems together. We want to learn more about each other. So we created this platform where managers come together and work on problems, organizational operating system problems at ECHO. And it has created, I would say, much more engagement in these meetings.

One would be hard pressed to find a more Values Driven culture than Project ECHO. Kristina, Jeanette and Lynn explain.

Kristina: And it was really small when we started and to see that grow over time and to see us implement our values, really made and impacted I think what we were doing, because it wasn’t just about us. And I think that’s what we really wanted to kind of make a point of. It was really about the impact we were having on our community and the people that were out there.

Jeanette: I think in the corporate world, there were values. We always said them. I don’t know if we always lived them. I would say at ECHO, we probably… I’ve seen it lived more because of the care and kindness that people have for one another. If somebody is sort of dragging behind, there’s somebody there to say, hey, come this way and they’ll be guided towards kind of the path most folks are on. So I think there’s the kindness and thoughtfulness and respect.

Lynn: There’s teamwork that happens and there’s also joy of work in the community when they are sharing and it’s all teach and learn. So that’s the basis of where the values came from. But then we would be on and we have a definition and we also have behaviors. And the part with the behaviors is every staff member came up with a definition and the behaviors at what, 2017, and we were a group of about 75 people. And the behaviors is what builds our work culture.

And when the pandemic hit, we figured out there, we have a whole new set of people here. Now we’re a group of 200, over 200, and the behaviors needed to be changed. And so Kristina and a couple of other people led a process where we involved everyone throughout the organization. They chose a team member to come together to really define what our behaviors need to look like to create our new work culture.

And I think that was the values in action right there. It took everyone’s voice to say, this is what I think that this should look like. And it was really interesting to see that process go through and how everybody was involved. The outcome is truly amazing.

Kristina speaks to their Values Challenge and Alaina tells us what her favorite value is.

And so part of what we do, I think, and try and do incorporate into our daily culture is we have something that we call values challenge that we do every year. First, we pick a value every year that we want to focus on because it’s important for us to kind of highlight something and see how can we work towards this and make strides in this area. And it looks different for everybody, but we pick a value. And then we also have values activities that people can do throughout the organization.

That is one of my favorite values, is joy of work. I do end my interviews just with that. Just letting everybody know that is my favorite value just because life is too short and we should really find a career that we enjoy. I don’t want you to wake up on Monday morning stressed out or Sunday night going to bed stressed out, waking up Monday morning with that feeling like I have to get to work. I have so many emails to check. I really want you to enjoy your job and feel empowered to execute in your position, whether it’s a coordinator, a program specialist, or a senior manager.

The focus on Values start with the Hiring process. Lynn, Jeanette and Debra tell us how.

Lynn: So Dr. Arora will tell everyone when they come in, we hire people for competency and this group of people that we work with are amazing and they’re very, very competent in what they do. But you have to have values and the values behind this, too, equally to be successful at Project ECHO.

Jeanette: So prior to our values-based hiring process, Denver, we had panel interviews, and that was dictated to us by UNM. That was UNM’s policy. So we all know that panel interviews don’t bring out the best in people. I’ll use some of Deb’s words, that one-on-one hiring process does and the onus is actually now on the hiring manager, the hiring team that they recruit to be part of that committee. And Ann Rhoades’ model encourages us to make those hiring decisions at the lowest level in the organization where the work is actually done. So that’s really what we’ve done, is change the whole hiring process. So we have gotten better at identifying people who would not just fit the job that we have for them, but fit in terms of the culture that we are promoting.

Deb: I do remember thinking, I don’t know why they would want to hire me because I have… all my background is in corporate world and I have no health care experience, no kind of academic experience other than my own. And I do remember when I was being interviewed, being asked questions that were really unexpected, things that they really got to things about my personality and my strengths that kind of surprised me. And that’s been really true ever since that hiring process. I think we have a way of pulling out the best in people and recognizing the best in people. And that’s a very diverse thing because we have a lot of different strengths and people from different backgrounds, and somehow I think as an organization, we’re really good at pulling out those strengths.

Two things the organization does exceptionally well is respect individual work styles and allowing employees to clearly see the impact of their work. Debra and Saul discuss that.

Debra: And I mean, here, it is actually going in and actually hearing one another for different work styles and people who are either very, very quiet versus out there, relationship builders versus someone who’s just down and working hard and being quiet. Every work style is really respected in this culture. And I believe that that is because of our values as identified and we harp on them. We put them out there every single, solitary day in a tangible way. And every voice is important. Every human being behind the voice is important. And we make an effort, I believe, in this environment to see people and to hear them and to encourage them to be comfortable in how they want to work, where they want to work, and yet to encourage them to be a part of the whole.

Saul: And when I stepped into that at Project ECHO, I was amazed that I was getting paid to do something like that. You can see the end result. Sometimes you can’t see the end result of what you’re doing, so your job becomes a little bit humdrum, a little bit boring. I’m just pushing things forward. But the reality was I can see in the faces of the people that the water was getting to the plant. That what we had was important, but it was only as important as if it reached the person that needed it. And that is what drove me. I would go home every day knowing that I was fulfilled. I was completely fulfilled in it. And from that point forward, it’s only been growing more and more

As in any organization leadership significantly shapes and influences the culture. Alaina and Debra describe leadership’s impact:

Alaina: So the secret sauce for me would have to be the unique relationship and collaboration between leadership and the boots-on-the-ground folks. So we do have a quote that we follow here at the institute and it’s, “Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.” And I really do believe that they do take into consideration what the boots-on-the-ground people are going through and make changes to make it better every single day for us as staff.

Debra: Actually, I think every month, Dr. Arora has an opportunity that he takes and takes advantage of to actually see the individuals during our staff meeting, even when it’s online. He’ll have us remove any obstacle for him to actually see the people. The other thing that when you’re in the office, and he’s very oftentimes in the office, he will stop and talk to every single, solitary person that he passes, noticing them, seeing them. And many times he’s extremely busy and on the way to a meeting, but when you interact with him, you are seen.

Finally, Lynn succinctly sums up what it takes to be successful at Project ECHO.

Lynn: Adaptability, you have to be willing to change and change as you go. And I think that’s something you have to be successful at to work at Project ECHO. You have to know that today it’s this way, tomorrow it’s something else. And if you can be in that mindset, you will be very, very successful here.

I want to thank all those who participated in this piece: Saul Hernandez, Kristina Kutemeyer, Jeanette Acosta-Fresquez, Debra Sparks, Deb Trevino, Alaina Martinez and Lynn Waln.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Ever-Changing World, will be released later this year.Listen to more The Business of Giving episodes here. Subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify to get notified of new episodes. You can also follow us on TwitterInstagram, and on Facebook. 

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