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A painful policy shift, a tactical team-up: Three agencies align to manage change

This year, the Building Community Network program – a partnership among GCN, The Home Depot Foundation, and hundreds of select Atlanta-area nonprofits – has focused on tactics and strategies for leading in times of change. Over the course of four events, leaders from over 100 network partners have come together to learn, practice, and discuss change management with the organizations and experts leading the way.

In January, New American Pathways CEO Paedia Mixon addressed the BCN community at an event hosted by Trees Atlanta, presenting her organization’s solution to a transformational shift in refugee and immigration policy. Mixon’s presentation, followed by questions from GCN CEO Karen Beavor and an audience of nonprofit pros, mapped their efforts so far to weather a number of painful changes, and emerge a more resilient, flexible, and efficient operation, able to sustain itself through any unexpected downturn.

The resettlement reversal

Among other changes, the last presidential election resulted in an abrupt turnaround for the country’s refugee policy: the previous administration’s goal to resettle 110,000 refugees in 2016 has become 30,000 in 2019. “All across the U.S., refugee resettlement agencies – at the time there were a little over 300 – were gearing up to grow,” Mixon told the audience. Instead, she reported, about a third of the nation’s programs have closed shop, and the five refugee resettlement agencies in Georgia have, collectively, lost close to 50 staff.

One of the reasons that the fallout has been so dramatic is because their work is funded through a per-refugee reimbursement system, said Mixon. “And it’s not only the reduction in number, but the increase in uncertainty.”

Another reason is the complex nature of the work. “There’s a ton of logistics,” said Mixon. “We find out they’re coming about two weeks in advance. For the next 90 days, we are responsible for making sure all their needs are met.” Those needs include English classes, school enrollment for kids, doctors appointments, MARTA orientation, social security and ID cards, employment, and housing.

“Though we have fewer clients, we’ve lost the economies of scale that allow us to provide them top-quality service.”

“Two years ago, our organization was welcoming 600 people a year through a team of logistics specialists, housing people, and a case management staff proficient in 28 languages,” said Mixon. WIth a sharp reduction in new refugees – to 200 last year – Mixon reports that they now have case managers, “former refugees themselves with years of one-on-one client experience,” moving couches and driving to appointments. “Though we have fewer clients, we’ve lost the economies of scale that allow us to provide them top-quality service.”

Teaming up to tackle change

The answer: coalition. Three of Georgia’s five resettlement organizations are located within a mile of each other in Dekalb County: the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta (IRC), Catholic Charities Atlanta, and New American Pathways. As they were going through these changes, Mixon said, they began talking for the first time about working together programmatically.

Because they all had the same government contract – carrying out the same required services across the same locations – the three Dekalb programs knew there was plenty of room to collaborate. “It would always have been a good idea to come together, but now we needed to do it, for the sake of our clients and the individuals working so hard for them,” said Mixon.

Fortunately, the three already had a strong relationship, having worked together formally on a policy coalition; in addition, Mixon and her counterparts, each with some ten years in the director’s seat, had long been meeting for monthly discussions. Mixon was also experienced in intense collaborative work, having helped lead New American Pathways through a successful merger. Completing the setup was a strategic restructuring grant from the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, which paid for help from GCN EVP and Senior Consultant Kathy Keeley.

Mixon also noted some disadvantages they had to face: Each organization was a different size – one small, one medium, and one large – and each organization had a different structure. “IRC Atlanta is the regional office of a national organization. For Catholic Charities, resettlement is one of many programs. And our organization is a freestanding local nonprofit,” said Mixon. One of the wrinkles that ensued: “All three of us would need to get on the phone with the IRC home office in New York to get their buy-in.”

Each organization brought its own unique strengths: “I’m an ideas person; IRC can take an idea and create a system for it; and Catholic Charities is the best quality-assurance and compliance partner.”

What they also discovered was that each organization brought its own unique strengths to the table. In terms of leadership, Mixon said, “I’m an ideas person; IRC can take an idea and create a system for it like nothing I’ve ever seen; and Catholic Charities is the best quality-assurance and compliance partner I’ve ever had.” With the most flexible structure, New American Pathways serves as the fiscal agent, and the likely point of hire for any new staff needed.

Sorting, systemizing, and streamlining

The first step was a “service sort,” an activity where each organization lists every single service they provide. Staff from all three organizations got together in a room, and wrote down each service they perform on a sticky note. Next, all the sticky notes go together on a wall and get grouped together, creating a visual record of exactly where you overlap. From there, you can start determining the opportunities to collaborate and streamline.

For instance, said Paedia, though they already knew several areas perfect for working together, they identified education as an unexpected spot for future collaboration: “We filled a wall with all the training and workshops we do, and saw that, altogether, we basically run a school.”

Another key was being transparent and honest about their procedures, costs, and pain points. The result is a three-phase plan for working together, starting with the “low-hanging fruit,” increasing efficiency where it’s easiest, then building on those wins with more complex teamwork. The first phase, currently underway, involves codifying more efficient processes that free up resources – from funds to case managers.

Another key was being transparent and honest about their procedures, costs, and pain points. The result is a three-phase plan… starting with the “low-hanging fruit,” then building on those wins with more complex teamwork.

“On the ground, we've figured out who gets a cheaper price on particular things, and are now buying in bulk together,” said Mixon. One upcoming change with a big impact: Pursuing a shared storage facility where they can combine their stock of furniture and other home goods, which up until now were squirreled away in a number of different locations, requiring staff or volunteers to drive “all over town,” and each organization to spend thousands more a month than needed.

They’ve also learned which organizations are best in different areas – handling crises, fulfilling compliance requirements, sourcing affordable housing – allowing them to better divide up work and learn from each other. “Every one of our teams believes we're the best in the field, so another big thing our teams are learning is to walk into a room with an open mind,” said Mixon. “Every meeting that we've had, my team has brought something back to try.”

Other first-phase plans include collective airport pickups, teaming up to establish better relationships with apartment complex managers, and streamlining apartment setups, one “very labor intensive” part of the process. Another potential game-changer: Opening up their client-exclusive thrift stores to the public, creating an earned income stream for the three programs.

Securing the investment

“My experience working through a merger taught me that the easy part is sitting in a room and planning it,” said Mixon. The hard part is to get buy-in from the team: asking them to put in more work in the short-term in order to lighten their load in the medium- and long-term. “This is what we’re thinking through now: How do we make this change as seamless as possible?”

Mixon said the past two years – from the pain of the policy shift through the effort to find relief for her overburdened team – have been “heartbreaking” but also improved her as a leader. “Finding something to pour our ideas and passion into, and get our team rallied around, has created a lot of buy-in,” said Mixon.

“Finding something to pour our ideas and passion into, and get our team rallied around, has created a lot of buy-in.”

The response from the donor community has also been positive. “The work is not that different across the five of us, so the donor community really appreciates us working together,” said Mixon. “That’s one of the best outcomes: We all bring our supporters to the table, and we’re going to be able to raise money together better than we could apart.”

In her closing remarks, GCN CEO Karen Beavor made a point to revisit the start of the process: “That ‘service sort’ is the lens through which a lot of this change happened: really digging in and being honest about costs, inefficiencies, where are we duplicating efforts, what's working, what's just kind of working.” That information, she said, is the “key in the lock,” the data you need to unleash efficiency. “That leads into a fundraising strategy that strengthens the whole. There's a lot of donors who are very excited about this prospect.”

Mixon agreed: “If we can get this project funded and off the ground, it’s going to be incredible.”

Marc Schultz is communications editor at GCN.

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