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Helping the Helpers

January 8, 2014

Occasionally, organizations dedicated to helping children and families need a little help themselves.

By Robert S. Benchley

There is a popular phrase in corporate circles about “doing well by doing good,” which refers to the belief that there are bottom-line benefits to having a social conscience. Unfortunately, for many social service organizations that have doing good in their DNA, sometimes they don’t do so well.

“It’s ironic,” says Charles Glisson, director of UT’s Children’s Mental Health Services Research Center, which works specifically with organizations that provide mental health, child welfare, and social services.

“These organizations are created to deliver services, and a funny thing happens—over time they develop bureaucratic characteristics that prevent them from doing the very thing they were founded to do. Rules and regulations get in the way and the organization ends up being its own worst enemy.”

Some common occurrences include:

  • Unnecessary paperwork and red tape
  • Misunderstandings between policy-making administrators and the employees who work with clients
  • A focus on services that attract funding but don’t address client needs
  • Prioritizing staff scheduling ahead of optimal treatment planning

To help deal with these issues, the center has developed an organizational intervention program known as ARC, which stands for Availability, Responsiveness, and Continuity. ARC is the only organizational intervention proven in multiple randomized controlled trials to help underperforming organizations develop characteristics more like top-tier performers.

The center’s research shows that no more than 10 percent fit its definition of a “top-tier” organization. They tend to feature low staff turnover, superior ability to sustain new programs, greater success in implementing evidence-based practices, significantly better client outcomes, and other positive characteristics, including the ability to attract funding.

All ARC-related services are delivered through the center’s ARC Institute for Organizational Effectiveness. Some client organizations begin as participants in the institute’s annual executive-level workshop. This two-and-a-half-day tune-up makes many of them realize they need additional help. Others seek out the institute directly because they are overwhelmed by a combination of performance issues and decreased funding.

Charles Glisson is the director of UT's Children's Mental Health Services Research Center.

Charles Glisson is the director of UT's Children's Mental Health Services Research Center.

“We take a two-pronged approach,” Glisson says. “First, we assess the organization, then we develop a strategy to help them become more effective. Everything we do is based on our research that’s been funded for the past 25 years by the National Institutes of Health, the W. T. Grant Foundation, and others.”

Assessing an organization’s problems is not a simple task. “It can be fraught with internal politics,” says Philip Green, an experimental psychologist responsible for the collection, analysis, and interpretation of research data. “We look for barriers at the front-line level. People who provide services know best what the barriers are and what it will take to make the services more effective.”

In making an assessment, Green and his team use the Organizational Social Context (OSC), which is a standardized measure of culture, climate, and work attitudes that they’ve developed and tested in thousands of organizations nationwide.

“We want honest and candid responses from the folks in the trenches—not the leaders,” Green says. “As a result, we do not permit the organizations to collect the data themselves. Researchers from outside the organization collect the data so the responses are kept confidential.”

A recent example was a child mental health center where the leadership had created a negative work environment. Workers were afraid to speak up about problems in referrals that were preventing clients from being matched with the most appropriate treatment protocols. Using ARC’s methodology, the center was able to change the climate and improve the referral process.

Once an organization signs on to the ARC program, the whole process starts with “the talk.”

“We don’t try to soft sell at the beginning,” says Tony Hemmelgarn, an industrial and organizational psychologist who is the institute’s head trainer. “We tell them it’s going to take lots of hard work, time, and resources, and that we will challenge their deeply held beliefs about how to effectively lead their organization.”

Programs typically require a commitment of eighteen to twenty-four months. “The OSC assessment gives us a good sense of how well an organization is functioning going in,” Hemmelgarn says. “We work with the organization to develop better insight into its guiding principles and improve its processes. We do this in a way that everyone is always focused on the client and paying attention to the data.”

“We help them get their eye back on the ball,” Glisson says. “We worked with one state child welfare system that evaluated caseworkers solely on how well and how quickly they completed their paperwork.” ARC helped the organization revamp the performance evaluation process to highlight the caseworkers’ success in serving children and families.

“We have found that changing the culture and the climate not only improves work attitudes and turnover, but also outcomes,” he added. “That’s why people come to us.”

Which sounds a lot like doing well by doing good.

For more information on the center and its activities, visit cmhsrc.utk.edu.