LeadingAge Magazine · November-December 2019 • Volume 09 • Number 06

Being a Trusted Partner Builds a Better Community

November 15, 2019 | by Katherine O'Brien

LeadingAge members often partner with other organizations to create new programs that benefit the surrounding community. Such partnerships also build an organization’s reputation as a trusted ally.

In the nonprofit world, where resources tend to be limited, partnering with other organizations is an effective way to create life-changing programs or projects that otherwise might not get off the ground. Partnerships are also a way to strengthen relations with other organizations and to build your reputation in the community as a trustworthy resource.

Project Averts Patients From the Emergency Room

National Church Residences, based in Columbus, OH, is a perfect example of an organization that uses partnerships to build trust and to create projects that touch the lives of clients. Case number one: the Southern Ohio Home for Life pilot project, which helped older adult patients with poorly managed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) reduce their dependence on emergency treatment.

A resident of Inniswood Village in Westerville, OH,
receives a home health visit as part of the Home for
Life pilot project. Photo courtesy of National Church

“Over a series of 2 or 3 lunches and a couple phone calls, we found common ground,” says Terry Spitznagel, the organization’s senior vice president of senior living, and the driving force behind its award-winning partnership with Adena Health System. “We had the same vision for the end game, which was to hit the triple aim of health care: increase access, lower cost and improve quality."

By all accounts, Home for Life, which ran from April 2016 to December 2017, was a success. Overall health care spending decreased by 15% and the hospital readmission rate was reduced by more than half. In fact, one patient, who had visited Adena’s ER 14 times in 2015, did not seek emergency treatment at all during the project. As Spitznagel notes, “the worst place for folks with chronic diseases is an emergency room.”

Developing Trust Is Key

Vicki Ford, service coordinator for National Church Residences, was a key player in Home for Life. She visited patients, usually for an 1-2 hours (one assessment lasted 3.5 hours), setting up community resources like home health care.

“[In] most health care interactions, with a physician or an emergency room, [you get] 7 minutes to maybe 10 minutes,” Spitznagel points out.

“To make Home for Life work, we needed to invest a lot of time building relationships with patients and develop trust—it’s so essential to the outcome,” says Spitznagel. “One of the biggest customer satisfiers was that a trusted person was coming to their house and sitting with them and really listening to them.”

In one case, it took a patient 3 visits before he allowed Ford inside his house (the first visits were on his front porch). Once inside, Ford discovered he was living with—and struggling to care for—his wife, who had late-stage dementia. The patient’s caregiving duties often exhausted him, leading to trips to the ER, where he always left before a treatment plan was finalized.

“His love for his wife was what was sending him to the emergency room and [he was] too afraid to ask for help because he thought they would take her away,” says Spitznagel. Ford put an end to this cycle by setting the couple up with personal care and homemaker services.

One of the bonuses with the Home for Life project is that the model is easily replicable. “We've taken the exact same model and replicated it in 9 different environments across the country,” says Spitznagel. Partners include 3 fire departments in Ohio and the Atlanta Habitat for Humanity.

“The great thing about it is that we could make it environmentally agnostic—we can put it in almost any kind of environment,” she adds.

Promoting Inclusive Businesses

Colorado-based Christian Living Communities (CLC) is also joining with partners to create a project, the web-based Dementia Inclusive platform that will educate businesses and others on supporting people with dementia, highlighting CLC’s strength as a trusted resource on dementia. Like Home for Life, this project will be easily replicable in locations across the country.

“Right now, we are just in the Denver Metro area, but it could go much larger and be replicable, and that's an important piece of it,” says Pam Sullivan, CLC’s vice-president of communication. (One partner, the Minnesota-based Peyton Family Foundation, would only provide funding if the project was scalable and available to anyone anywhere.)

“Probably less than 10% of the total population in the U.S. will ever live in a community like the ones CLC owns and manages,” notes Tim Rogers, executive director of Someren Glen Retirement Community, a CLC neighborhood. “You've got the other 90% of the population who are being reached with this type of education—and that's who we wanted to target specifically.”

CLC and its partners, which include the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, aim to create modules that “go beyond what is dementia and what is the diagnosis,” adds Sullivan. The full portal (which was originally scheduled to launch in 2019 and has been shifted to 2020), will include 5 self-paced education modules on topics like removing dementia stigma and creating inclusive practices for excellent customers. It will also be capable of tracking completion and success, and “auto-sending” encouraging reminders and completion rewards.

“We saw some synergies between some of CLC’s existing partnerships," says Sullivan. "The common thread is that we all know somebody living with dementia and we all understand that it affects more than those living with the diagnosis."

Dementia Inclusive is not part of Dementia Friendly America, a network co-chaired by LeadingAge CEO Katie Smith Sloan, which promotes dementia-inclusive environments across the U.S. Still, DFA affiliate Dementia Friendly Denver is very much on board with the project. “We are trying to figure out what our voice is and how our voice will blend, not necessarily compete with that of other voices in this space,” says Rogers.

A Complex Partnership With a Huge Community Impact

National Church Residences is a key player in another award-winning partnership, the Champion Intergenerational Center, a community space that pairs up elders with kindergarteners. Unlike Home for Life, this project involves multiple partners: Columbus Early Learning Centers, Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority, The Ohio State University (OSU), Partners Achieving Community Transformation, and HUD.

Champion Ctr
The Champion Intergenerational Center, which pairs elders with kindergarteners, is a multi-partner collaboration for the benefit of low-income kids.


“The more partners you bring in, the more you muddy the water,” says Spitznagel. “The more agendas, the more needs, the more players, the more complicated overall in getting to an end game, which is probably why it took us so long.” (Linda Mauger, former director of the OSU Office of Geriatrics and Gerontology, started thinking about the concept 7 years before the center opened in 2014, quickly pulling in Spitznagel and other key partners.)

In terms of complexity, the partners had to ensure all regulatory guidelines were met, including background check requirements. They also had to deal with licensing issues, develop new policies and programming, implement a fundraising campaign, and create communications and marketing material. Nevertheless, “the benefits so outweigh the challenge of having to overcome those operational concerns,” Spitznagel says.

“It’s probably one of the most endearing centers to come to,” she adds. “It's not just a regular daycare center; it’s kids who are vulnerable, who come from low-income families and may not have a lot of resources. They interact with adult day clients who are also very vulnerable, and they just love each other—they can't wait to spend time with each other.”

It's one of those great, great partnerships, that on so many levels needs so many players to come in, and we needed to find some great philanthropic support to make all that happen.”

Tips and Lessons Learned

If you are thinking about joining forces with other organizations to create a new project, keep the following 3 tips from CLC’s Pam Sullivan in mind:

1. Look for a gap in community services that you can fill with your expertise and knowledge.

2. Create and formalize a vision of what you want to accomplish, ideally looking for projects that can be scalable.

3. Engage others who have a shared vision and show them how together you can achieve that vision.

CLC’s Tim Rogers has this advice: “If you believe you have a message to deliver, don't be afraid to step out and deliver that message and find other partners and other stakeholders who align with that vision and that message [and who] will want to join you in that effort.”

If you do strike up a partnership, it’s critical to inform partners about any delays, Rogers adds: “When we had to take a step back [because CLC grew so fast], we kept our partners looped in and let them know when we could reengage," says Rogers. "Maintaining consistent communication is critical because it continues to foster trust between the partners. You absolutely have got to have that, otherwise it falls apart.”

For her part, National Church Residences’ Terry Spitznagel says it’s a wise idea to invest time in the exploratory phase of the partnership: “No rushing to the go button. The lunches and the breakfasts and all those meetings where the brainstorming [take place], that time is […] really valuable.”

Katherine O’Brien is a writer who lives in Toronto, ON, Canada.