LeadingAge Magazine · January/February 2014 • Volume 04 • Number 01

Times of Great Change Require Us to Deliver Great Things

January 04, 2014 | by David Gehm

Times of Great Change Require Us to Deliver Great Things

The nation is looking for answers, needing solutions for problems that loom. The short term issues of today—tax-exempt challenges, the debt ceiling, implementation of the Affordable Care Act—will at some point give way to long-term issues needing attention. The sheer number of seniors needing supports and services in the decades to come will force us to consider transformational change to funding mechanisms, care delivery systems, caregiving, and the overall aging experience in America. Answers ultimately can come from different places—the loudest political voice, the clearest fiscal case, the whipsaw of public opinion. But these won’t necessarily be the “best” solutions offered, as history has demonstrated.

There is an alternative voice in our nation—one that historically has offered thoughtful, ethical, person-focused solutions to problems facing our nation from education to the arts to health care. Namely, the not-for-profit voice—and on the big issues of the day, the issue of safe, affordable, accessible supports and services for seniors and their caregivers, LeadingAge is poised to lead. But, to state the obvious, leading takes leadership!

I believe that we have an opportunity to re-frame our work as not-for-profit senior service providers. We’ve “looked good” for years—top notch facilities, cutting edge campuses, compelling marketing plans, and great staff to make it all work. But I worry, at times, if we’ve lost our focus a bit from the foundational, core principles upon which we as not-for-profits operate.

Many of us were started before, or shortly after the turn of the 20th century—local, community-based in every sense of the word, focused on meeting needs in the community that by definition, were “unprofitable” for commercial enterprise to address. We mobilized the faith community, the philanthropic community, and the political community to the cause—and made our humble beginnings.

We didn’t connect with political leaders to advance a macro-agenda. We didn’t rally the faith community as an alternative to their work as faith leaders. Rather, we engaged all these folks and many more, because it was the right thing to do and we were meeting needs that without us would never have been met. We served people that had no choice and no safety nets. It became the essence of who we were as not-for-profits, the “Third Sector,” and as de Tocqueville observed—a phenomena uniquely American through and through.

For decades we’ve seen needs, rallied support, and served people. It’s who we are; it’s what we do. It’s what brought the founders of LeadingAge together in New York over 50 years ago. It’s what continues to bind us together—an enduring set of core values that has seen us through decades of every kind of political, social, and economic change that has come along.

In times of great change—great uncertainty, great need—we are the field that has always delivered great things. Our communities have counted on us to lead the way, focusing our communal efforts on meeting unmet needs. We are again at such a time in our nation’s history, when we’re being called to lead the way in addressing some of our nation’s greatest challenges.

As not-for-profit providers of senior services, “on the ground” in our communities, we are on the front edge of where transformation can occur. It’s up to us to innovate in service delivery, engage our communities in new and different ways, and partner and collaborate for real solutions not just for those who can afford our services or have the right insurance card, but for all those whose current needs, not the business models of the past, should define our relationship with them.

And the beauty is, as we do our work as providers we are linked together through LeadingAge, which can help us validate and refine our programs through our Center for Applied Research, accelerate our impact through our Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST), and scale our good work through shared learning and advocacy.

We look good as not-for-profits. We dress up like corporate types—strong boards, great-looking marketing, completely equipped campuses. We build strong cash flows, debt services, and days cash on hand. And these are all important, in fact essential elements to both good leadership and good stewardship. We should not abandon this. But we also should not for a minute, assume it is all we need to do to fulfill our role in our society.

It’s not “either-or” … it’s not either we have strong balance sheets or we take care of the very vulnerable; it’s not either we have strong brands and effective marketing or we open new services for the underserved; it’s not either we develop new campuses or we focus on unmet needs in our communities.

Rather, as strong, values-driven, not-for-profit providers of senior services, we need to lead the nation and our communities with a “both-and” strategy. Leverage our balance sheets, attract social entrepreneurs, rally volunteers and members of the faith community to serve in new and different ways. Imagine our impact as we refocus and energize our leadership role, with the combined voice and power of LeadingAge to shape public policy in the direction of effective community-based solutions. Our seniors and their caregivers need us to step in this ever widening gap; our policy makers need real solutions that will require us to take some risk and lead; the essence of who we are demands our very best efforts.

At your next board meeting, consider launching a needs assessment in your community to understand where you are most needed. At your next development event, remind your community and supporters that when they invest in your organization the return on investment they receive comes in service and values and vision. When you draft your next strategic plan, make sure it is focused on those who can’t pay as well as those who can. And when you are at your statehouse or a meeting with your federal legislators, remind them that the not-for-profits in their community are doing things no one else would and doing it better than anyone else can.

You do this better than anyone else, and your organizations have done it for decades. You are the experts at expanding the world of possibilities for aging in your communities, in your states and in our country. You are Leading Age.