Innovation Excellence: Enrichment Services Program embraced change to help end poverty
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.
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.
ESP’s Community Services departmentwas 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 area
s. 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.
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.