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KenCrest’s Journey into Something New: Improving Social Innovation through Our ‘WHY’

Disruptive Innovations

Strategic Planning: Reasoning, Risks, and Rewards

Strategic planning, particularly in the non-profit sector, has been under fire for a long time. How can one predict the future? How long can any document provide valuable direction in an ever-changing environment? As a new CEO, creating action plans to achieve goals can appear daunting; yet, to know how to get anywhere, one must understand where to start and cultivate a vision for the future. Much of what is learned as a CEO is revealed over time; nonetheless failing to plan equates to stagnation, and without movement organizations do not have the energy to leap over new hurtles as they arise.

KenCrest started cultivating its latest strategic plan the way many organizations do, by forming a team of staff to drive the research and analysis. Our teams looked for holes and what was missing. We had many ideas around how to measure outcomes, yet no singular tool or system had been adopted and implemented across the agency. Throughout that process KenCrest discovered even bigger holes and several greater, figurative losses. Industry-wide human services providers were (and still are) experiencing an enormous workforce crisis. There are not enough staff to support those with disabilities and providers simply cannot pay enough to compete with for-profit industries. Human services providers are heavily reliant on federal reimbursement, but the ever-changing policies and rates are sapping our energy to shift our thinking to furthering efficiency and outcomes. Lastly, while some expectations were understandable, overall KenCrest had limited its expectations of what was possible for adults with intellectual disabilities to achieve within our programs, given the aforementioned challenges. 

KenCrest’s leadership took a hard look at the many changes made throughout the previous 10 years; many of those changes were focused on improving process, and many of the processes on improving compliance. If one were to compare an organization to a house, compliance would be the basement substructure. While it’s a core component of the foundation, it’s not increasing the activities or outcomes of the people within the house. Maintaining safety is important, yet too much focus on safety zeros out risk and rules out opportunities for learning and exploration. 

KenCrest engaged a consultant to conduct environmental scans, and organized a group of board members to ask challenging questions and evaluate alternatives. KenCrest’s leadership decided the agency would hold itself to the best vision of our “why” possible and set out to achieve the first of those milestones over two years. The strategic plan was approved quickly but launching it agency-wide proved more difficult; staff were not exposed enough to KenCrest’s “why.” One of the most pivotal conversations during the strategic planning process and launch was asking “why” we wanted to do this and “why” it was meaningful. Those answers were revealed through dialogues after our leadership team watched Simon Sinek’s TED talk, Start with WHY: How Great Leaders Inspire Action. While leadership understood and connected to KenCrest’s “why,” it was imperative that our “why” was clearly communicated and understood by the more than 2,000 employees who would implement and live out this new vision. 

There are a plethora of business journals that advise companies to ensure that what they do and what they produce matches their “why.” It’s difficult to do so when your company and industry are already organized to deliver a specific set of services or product. At KenCrest our leadership team needed to reflect on what goals complemented our “why,” despite our industry. For example, were we trying to grow a better day program? No; KenCrest wants to help individuals become fully immersed into their families and surrounding communities. Generally, that is not the ultimate goal of most day programs in the human services industry. We asked, are we trying to build better group homes? No; honestly in the many decades that human services providers have offered group homes, very few ever stabilized turnover. The human services industry works in cycles; when the economy does well, staffing suffers, and when the economy is in trouble, agencies attract more staff. Do we retain them? Some; imagine what it’s like for the individuals being supported to have their needs met by a different person every six to 12 months. We asked ourselves, would this help us live out our vision? No; and thus, there was work to be done.

Almost all organizations spend time writing and rewriting their vision and mission statements. In our refresh we decided to write something with a broader, more inclusive, more aspirational intent. We wanted authentic inclusion to be the essence of our mission. That everyone KenCrest supported would live with someone they love, and someone who loved them in return; that everyone who wanted a job would have a job; and that every child in a KenCrest early learning center would receive the best support for a great start in life. This was the crux of our “why,” and what needed to be conveyed and embraced by every employee, and through every program and service at KenCrest. 

Organizational Capacity

In a journal article, The Tools of Cooperation and Change, by Clayton M. Christensen, Matt Marx and Howard H. Stevenson, I came across while traveling, I learned that the reality of our work is to pursue the vision. The authors described four tools for change: power, leadership, management, and culture.  Christensen, Marx, and Stevenson suggest that the right tool is chosen based on your answer to two questions: Do you know where you are going, and do you know the cause and effect to get there? By utilizing the tools for change, the questions, and evaluating the last operational two years of our organization, KenCrest has shifted even further towards fully embracing our vision and our “why.” The management tools displayed below have empowered and equipped our organization to design a new operational structure, and utilize more efficient practices than we have in the past. 

Photo Credit: The Tools of Cooperation and Change, by Clayton M. Christensen, Matt Marx and Howard H. Stevenson, 2006

In the process of implementing the tools, KenCrest began making shifts in its middle-management leadership to help morph the organizational culture that is still reminiscent of a former regime. The old culture ultimately bred the silos within the Agency, which would not serve our direction nor our destination. We’ve since developed a new culture that is progressing throughout KenCrest; one based on social responsibility (the achievements of our clients), economic accountability (our ability to operate efficiently and collect data), and innovation (our continuous pursuit of new approaches).

Progress To-date

KenCrest has already made great strides in implementing the tools for change, its new culture, and the agency-wide adoption of our vision and our “why.” To date, KenCrest has added a new department focused on empowering positive outcomes for every adult individual with an intellectual disability that the agency supports. Personal Outcome Champions are well-versed in all of KenCrest’s programs and services, and help each individual navigate their needs and goals. The Personal Outcome Champions complement our Meaningful Life Assessment initiative that KenCrest launched two years ago, to develop an assessment for baseline data related to individuals’ happiness and opportunities for growth in their personal lives and health. KenCrest has contracted with a new recruitment agency that specializes in applicant screening which has significantly improved new employee retention. The Agency launched a multi-year measurement capacity initiative to hone skills in identifying outputs and outcomes in our programs and services; the initiative is supported by the Yale Center for Consultation in Connecticut. We created a list of management skills we are looking to instill throughout our leadership to promote creativity and problem solving, as well as standards that reinforce positive practices, celebration, and accountability. Lastly, we are setting the groundwork to eliminate “day and residential” program labels and replace them with meaningful life planning seven-days-a-week.  

Challenges on the Road Ahead, and Getting Over the Bumps

The signs of changes to come in the human services industry are already revealing themselves; payment models are shifting; payers want to see greater “value” in the work of agencies like KenCrest; incentives are already being paid for outcomes; the pressure of growing waiting lists for services are looming over many states; and special education graduates do not want to work in non-inclusive models. Some government entities believe that physical health, mental health and other long term supports or services should be integrated under the same waivers and funding streams to get the best outcomes. Despite this, the value of the integration of programs and services, and the “how to” manual of doing so, have yet to be published. KenCrest believes that if agencies like ours remain focused on outcomes, become more family friendly, and speak up about our vision of radical inclusion; we will help steer the course for greater efficiency, empowerment, and social change in the human services industry.  

Our vision has been dependent on social innovation. As KenCrest continues to advance in our mission we will remain transfixed on our vision and our ‘why.’ We will continue to embrace tough conversations that lead to inspiration. While “we will not finish the work, we will do our part.”

Works Cited

Christensen, Clayton M, et al. “The Tools of Cooperation and Change.” Harvard Business Review, Oct. 2006,

Author bio

Marian Baldini is the President and CEO of KenCrest, a human services and early education agency that supports more than 12,500 individuals throughout Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Delaware. She became KenCrest’s CEO in 2015 and has nearly 40 years of experience in executive planning, administration, academia, and direct support in the human services sector. In 2019 she was recognized as one of The Philadelphia Business Journal’s “Most Admired CEOs.”