Over the course of the past six years, Tony Thomas hasn’t had to hunker down in the face of the economic recession — he’s had to plan for 10 to 15 percent annual growth over those six years.
Thomas, who serves as executive director at Welcome House Inc., a 295-employee organization devoted to helping individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has been focused on overcoming funding challenges, diversifying services and continuing growth.
“We don’t really know what people are talking about when it comes to a bad economy or an economic recession; it just hasn’t happened to us,” Thomas says. “There’s been a lot of growth in the developmental disabilities field because the need is so great.”
Within Cuyahoga County alone, there are 600 to 700 people waiting for services. Providers such as Welcome House have been trying to expand services and create opportunities so people with disabilities have quality homes to live in in the future.
“That’s why the recession really hasn’t hit us at all,” Thomas says. “It’s gone in the opposite direction.”
Challenges of Growth
While Welcome House has experienced exceptional growth over the recent years, it hasn’t come without challenges and obstacles to overcome.
“The biggest challenge we have is the number of people who need services far exceed the number of spaces and opportunities that we have,” Thomas says. “What we are trying to do is to look for new and creative ways to serve people.”
The other thing that’s been a challenge for Welcome House has been that both the federal and state government changed their funding restraints.
“They’ve done some different things in their funding cycles, so the traditional programs we used to rely on to build a group home, some of those funding streams have changed,” he says. “So what we’ve had to do is be creative in the way we approach public funding to try to get dollars available to serve the people that we support. That’s really been our biggest challenge over the last four or five years.”
Welcome House has tried to counter this change by creating a home health care agency within the organization to draw new dollars from the federal government through the Medicare program.
“That’s a way we have tried to balance out,” he says. “If something changes in the state system, we try to look for federal dollars to support that. If things change in the federal system, we look at how the state may supplement that or go to the county for some creative ways to work with them. That’s what we are good at doing and that’s how we work.”
Another way around funding changes has been expanding fundraising beyond government sources.
“We try to do events and other kinds of things that will create opportunities,” Thomas says. “People can get behind us and support us through our fundraisers, through our events, through volunteering with us and a whole variety of ways.”
The growth Welcome House has seen doesn’t come to organizations that keep doing the same things over and over. Welcome House looks to differentiate itself from other providers in Cuyahoga County.
“We differentiate ourselves from those other organizations by looking at what the needs are out on the horizon and trying to plan for those services that may be needed two to three years from now,” Thomas says. “An organization like ours needs to change. It’s not something that can stay constant. We really need to change and adapt our organization to meet the growing needs and the changing needs of people with disabilities.”
It’s that kind of thinking that has separated Welcome House from other similar organizations and has contributed to its growth.
“It’s trying to think about what the future is but also trying to think outside the box,” Thomas says.
When it comes to out-of-the-box thinking, you need employees who share your vision and drive to make a difference in the organization.
“You have to recruit people who not just share your vision but also see the need for changing the organization and expanding services in different directions,” he says. “If you’re an organization or business and you’re staying in one line of business and that’s all you do and the market changes or the needs change, you’re not adapting to it. You have to adapt to it and you have to change and you have to have people on board, especially in your leadership positions, that are willing to look at changing the organization and aren’t afraid to make those changes.”
To make those changes a reality, you have to plan things out as an organization.
“If you agree to do something you have to also agree to change your organization to meet that need,” Thomas says. “Our people are very into doing that. They see the need to do it and they see the need to move the organization in a different direction.” <<
How to reach: Welcome House Inc., (440) 356-2330 or www.welcomehouseinc.org