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Innovation Excellence: Enrichment Services Program embraced change to help end poverty

Jun 30, 2020

The Evelyn Wright Moore Award for Innovation Excellence recognizes nonprofit leaders who use technology and forward thinking to make a difference in their organization and their community. The annual award is named after Evelyn Wright Moore, who attended every single Wipfli National Training Conference until her passing, and was a lifelong champion of innovation, learning and community service.

In 2019, the honor was given to Belva Dorsey, CEO of Enrichment Services Program (ESP), a community action agency based in Columbus, Georgia. ESP received a $2,000 donation to honor Evelyn’s memory and carry on her spirit of innovation.

Here’s why:

Breaking down barriers

Belva Dorsey leads Enrichment Services Program (ESP), a community action agency based in Columbus, Georgia that serves over 6,000 customers. A few years ago, she started to wonder if silos in the organization were getting in the way of its mission.

The agency has four main focus areas: education, which includes Head Start/Early Head Start services; stabilizing services, like food distribution and energy assistance; employment training; and family strengthening. But there was little unity across the organization. When employees talked about who they worked for, they might name their program versus the organization, Dorsey recalled.

She knew ESP’s customers were facing barriers in their lives. She didn’t want her organization’s structure to be another hurdle for them to overcome.

“We started looking at how we operated,” Dorsey said. “Some changes are forced. But for us, we intentionally decided to transform as an organization.”

Imagining a solution

Since programs operated in silos, customers had to provide the same documentation and answer the same questions multiple times. The duplicated effort was a waste of staff and customer time, and a burden for customers who had to secure documents and transportation over and over again. Dorsey wanted to eliminate a major barrier, or at least reduce it.

Part of her solution was a unified database system, where all of the ESP’s departments and customer records could be linked. Dorsey imagined a common intake process, so customers only had to provide information one time. She had a vision for a single system that would lead toward better outcomes for children and families. But she wasn’t a technical person.

Getting technical

ESP’s Community Services department was using a database that could track families along the continuum from crisis to thriving. But it didn’t have the early childhood components Dorsey was looking for. As she searched for a solution, she couldn’t find any programs that could accommodate the variety of services ESP offered.

A peer encouraged Dorsey to talk to a developer and share her vision; if Dorsey led the charge, other community action agencies could benefit too, her colleague reasoned. It was great advice; the developer who created the database being used by the Community Services department agreed to work with Dorsey on the project.

Communicating her vision and explaining what had to be captured took time. “We invested a lot of time – hours and hours in early morning, late evening, weekend conversations – to develop the system we have in place now.

“Looking back, I really appreciate having the opportunity to co-design the modules,” Dorsey said. She was able to involve team members throughout the process to collect feedback and make course corrections.

Transforming the fight against poverty

Dorsey piloted the solution in smaller counties to work out issues before rolling out to ESP’s largest service areas. It took about three years to get the organization live in the remaining counties.

Now, within a single database, ESP can see which services families are receiving and track their progress toward self-sufficiency. Simple questions from donors like “How many people do you serve?” can be answered easily, without cumbersome deduplication efforts. And customers get support from more people and programs in the agency, not just one.

“We’ve evolved so much,” Dorsey said. “We’re able to operate more efficiently. We’re saving money from consolidating systems. Most importantly, we’ve seen better outcomes for children and families.

“More families are reaching self-sufficiency or taking steps in that direction,” Dorsey said.

Dreaming bigger

ESP’s transformation highlighted the need for bigger, community-level change. Across the community, leaders and stakeholders were hearing a common complaint: families had to provide the same documentation and demographic information over and over again, just as they had at ESP, but on a larger scale.

In late 2018, ESP received grant funding to establish a community-wide coalition to fight poverty. Instead of operating as individual entities, the Poverty Reduction Coalition (PRC) brings community partners and stakeholders together. Today, there are 29 members and 20 local organizations participating in the PRC.

One of the PRC’s tasks has been developing a coordinated entry system, like ESP enacted. One portal will be used across a number of family support and workforce development agencies. Having a single entry system will reduce the burden on families who would otherwise have to apply for services at multiple locations. And it will make it easier for agencies to identify prospective families.

Working together, PRC has a goal to reduce poverty in the Chattahoochee Valley by 10% over the next 10 years. “Together, we can stop managing poverty and start reducing it,” Dorsey said.

 

Nominate a nonprofit innovator for the Evelyn Wright Moore Award for Innovation Excellence by June 12. The winner will be announced during the opening session of this year’s Wipfli National Training Conference, and the winner’s organization will receive $5,000.

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Meet the Innovator:

Belva Dorsey, CEO, Enrichment Services Program

Belva Dorsey is CEO of Enrichment Services Program (ESP), a community action agency based in Columbus, Georgia. She’s been with ESP for about 20 years; she started as a center manager in the organization’s head start program and then advanced through the organization.

How did you end up in nonprofit?

My mom’s side of the family – my mom, grandmother, grandfather, great aunt – were all teachers. My grandfather was a school principal. I wanted to be in a helping profession, but I needed to know that whatever I accomplished was based on my own talents and skills and abilities; that I “earned my own stripes.” I wanted to make my own path, not follow theirs.

I started as a biology major, but the elective classes in social sciences really stuck with me. I became very interested in people and understanding behavior; why people do what they do. I changed my major to focus on social sciences and that led me to the nonprofit sector.

Interestingly, part of what I do now – and what I enjoy most – is sharing information with others and teaching.

Why is innovation important to nonprofits?

Change is constant. To be relevant and impactful, nonprofits have to be innovative. We have to find opportunities to meet changing needs in changing environments. Customers are different today and they want to receive services and support in new ways. They want to communicate with staff differently.

It’s really important to me that people don’t limit “innovation” to technology. You can be innovative without technology being the main focus or the end product you create. You can be innovative in other ways, too.

How do you find inspiration?

I’m inspired by the families we serve. I think about the challenges they face – at no fault of their own. They didn’t decide to live in poverty.

My life mission has been to help people. People are facing barriers and need opportunities – and I can do something to help.  

What’s one of the biggest challenges you faced in your project?

Change is difficult and some staff members resisted; they said the “old way” was better. It was challenging to sift through the issues to determine whether they were true “glitches” versus natural human resistance.

It was really important to communicate the purpose and the ‘why’ behind what we were doing. Resistance is a natural part of the process. When you come up against it, remembering your ‘why’ and your purpose gives you the fuel to move forward.

What’s the best part of your job?

One of the best parts of my job is talking with leaders of other organizations who have a desire to get where we are. I enjoy being able to share what we’ve learned and some of the joys and pains we went through. I love being able to support other peers and organizations.