President and CEO Rachel Lustig started at Catholic Social Services four years ago. When she interviewed, the board of directors took her to a food pantry the size of a three-car garage in west Columbus.
Over the past 15 years, it had become a de facto welcome center for the growing Hispanic community. Police officers held classes to educate immigrants on U.S. laws like car seats, while families got flu shots and eye exams. But the space was designed to be a food pantry.
This year, CSS has opened its new Our Lady of Guadalupe Center, which is three times larger, to provide holistic support like computer and English classes, access to legal consultants and more. Lustig says it marries the nonprofit’s individual development with its emergency assistance, because if you ask people to make a change in their lives, they can’t be in a crisis situation.
“Our hope with that food pantry is that we can provide you with the types of skills and support that make it possible for you to not come back for the food,” she says.
CSS, a faith-based social service agency that is part of the Diocese of Columbus and serves Central and Southern Ohio, is continuing its 70-year legacy by going wider for seniors and deeper for families. Lustig says that means serving more low-income senior citizens who want to stay independent and offering comprehensive care for families through two community centers.
“In the poverty arena, you want little wins that are strategic on longer, larger-term issues,” she says. “The questions that we’re dealing with are related to poverty. They are complicated. They are interconnected.”
Compassion and impact
Lustig tends to want to get things done quickly, but she’s developed patience and perseverance when bringing about change within CSS or external initiatives like the expanded community center.
“If we want to do something that’s going to make a difference, we’re going to have to hang with it for a while,” she says. “We’re going to have to invite people into that and engage them.”
Her business education helped her see that the organization could be more efficient. Tools used in for-profit business, such as data systems that help articulate the value proposition, are catching on in nonprofits. However, it couldn’t be at the expense of the organization’s commitment to alleviating suffering for people on the margins.
A balance of compassion and impact shape the way CSS does its work, holding each other in check. Lustig also helps translate the language of business for her staff.
“The organization was committed to quality care — no doubt about it. If I’ve helped to change it, it’s to tell our story in a better way, and helped to say, ‘We’ve got to take this to more people,’” she says.
Today, CSS uses four criteria for excellence. External factors of impact and capacity: “Is it making a difference and running at full throttle?” And, internal measurements of quality and efficiency: “Are clients satisfied with its products? If CSS sends unsupervised volunteers into a vulnerable population’s homes, how does it ensure they are trustworthy?”
As CSS became more strategic about its purpose, focusing on seniors and families, it also rechanneled resources.
For example, CSS now serves 33 percent more seniors — partly from increased efficiency and engaging technology, and partly from recognizing a growing senior population that needs high-impact, high-quality service. CSS also took over an existing foster grandparent program that sends low-income volunteer seniors into schools.
“One of the things we’ve learned at CSS is that it’s not just enough to know the population, you’ve got to know the process by which you provide the care,” she says.
CSS already had another highly compliant program for low-income volunteer seniors where they visit homebound seniors, Lustig says. The volunteers get a stipend, which helps enhance their quality of life.
In addition, the focus shift was an opportunity to assess the value of the staff’s time. For example, CSS provides e-services to manage bills for people without the cognitive capacity to do so. Those employees also did some case management, which they loved, but many clients already had a case manager.
“That became a culture shift: We do have to specialize and we do have to call on people to do the best that they can in the role that they provide for people,” Lustig says.
Lustig has noticed differences, and the change continues today, but it’s built on that foundation of quality of care.
More ideas are being brought forward. People are sitting on committees, taking ownership. Information is being shared across and down into the organization more freely.
“There’s still work that’s being done to help make us more business minded,” she says.
Scorecards should make the frontline staff’s work more user friendly, Lustig says, because access to better information can also help provide quality care.
“The scary part of accountability is the unknown part of it,” she says. “Once it’s settled in and you know that this is what you’re accountable for, it can help to provide significant direction. It’s just that change process that can be challenging, so we’re just trying to make sure that we integrate it in a way that includes transparency, quality and openness.”