This week, at The One Thing Podcast, by The Horton Group, our host Jason Helfert, talks to our guest, Mary Pat Ambrosino, President and CEO of CTF Illinois. CTF Illinois specializes at creating a culture where people are not defined by their differences, but recognized for the value they bring to their communities. Their mission is to empower each individual to live the life they want, and that’s what they’ve been doing in over 20 communities, for more than 650 people that they already supported.
It’s common for staff at nonprofits to start feeling the effects of burnout. Many organizations are having a difficult time hiring and/or retaining their current staff, and are forced to get creative when it comes to talent strategy. Ambrosino says that flexibility has been helpful – although their hours are 24/7, management works with staff to create a schedule that satisfies everyone.
Culture is equally important. CTF Illinois has implemented a cultural committee and started an Employee of the Month to recognize and honor staff achievements. And the staff certainly has accomplished impressive feats that have changed people’s lives, whether it’s helping an individual with the gender transition process, or making it possible for an indivudal in a wheelchair go to the beach for the first time. Many obstacles make it difficult for nonprofits like CTF Illinois to succeed – but encouraging the staff who are driving out their mission to the fullest is a good way to stay motivated and on track to succeed.
Listen to our podcast above for the full interview with Mary Pat Ambrosino and learn more about how important it is for nonprofits to stay persistent, dedicated and focused on improving their community.
Hello and welcome to The One Thing podcast brought to you by the Horton Group. We specialize in Insurance employee benefits and risk advisory and I’m your host, Jason Helfert, excited, excited. It excited today to have as a guest in a dear friend of myself and the Horton Group president and CEO of community services foundation and CTF, Illinois. Mary Pat Ambrosino. How you doing, Mary Pat?
Hey, I’m having a really good day. How about you? I’m doing good. I’m doing good.
What makes it such a good day?
I don’t know. I’m just kind of finishing up about six meetings. They all my pretty good all over Zoomer teams to of course all over Zuma. I talked to Senator Hastings today and I are meeting like my leadership meeting. So a lot of stuff done. Look good, feel good.
Well, we’ll make this one as productive as possible. So you can keep the trend going. Yeah. Yeah. There is an Irish toast that says there are good ships and there are wood chips, you know, the ships that sail the sea, but the best ships are friendships and may they ever be And I shared that not only because you’re Irish, right? And I’m Irish too. So I thought you’d appreciate it. But very bad. There are there are people in this world that you mean and at the time you meet them you have no idea what kind of impact will have in your life. No idea. What kind of great role model or a patient teacher they’ll be for you and Mary Pat you have been all three of those to me in my life for everybody listening to the podcast today. Mary Pat Ambrosino is the friend who introduced me. To the nonprofit world back in 08. And we’ve been friends ever since and my parents introduced me to the nonprofit world. But in the professional setting, Mary, Pat is the one who introduced me to the nonprofit world, and I just want to say thank you so much for doing that. It’s been a hell of a ride and you’re a hell of a friend. And and I know you very well. I know your family and your history and I know a lot of people do know CTF and you but for those that don’t What’s one thing we should know about CTF and in your role? And how you came to be CEO?
CTF, I think is just an amazing machine that humanizes the most vulnerable people in Illinois. We are a very strong organization, we’re a very progressive organization. And I love, I love when we never say no to a challenge. I’ll give you an example: we have a person, an individual resident in Charleston, who is identifying themselves and now is a different gender. And we are helping them through the entire process. Transition from going to doctors’ appointments, psychiatrist appointments – we’re making it happen for this person. And I don’t think the world would have done that except CTF because quote unquote, this person also has an intellectual disability. So that would have been the first barrier to say no and that’s never a barrier with us.
Well, that’s fantastic. I love the nonprofit community for that. I think there’s countless stories that had people can share on a daily basis. Whether it’s a DSP was helping out an individual or somebody we help find a job, right? I mean, so many rewarding things going on today in the nonprofit community. And so, I guess it can be a couple other examples of cool things that’s going on at CTF right now that you’re proud of that, you want people out there to know about.
I’ll give you the you know, like I was really thinking in like who CTF is and how do you visualize your organization? Right? And you know how they have now they have those photo mosaics. And so when you look far, there’s this big picture, but when you look closer it’s just a thousand different people making that picture how pretty it is? It is pretty cool. Yeah, that to me is that’s how I kind of live my daily life and we and I always talked to our CEO of every single day and she literally gives me a story, you know, and so every day we have something to talk about. We can talk about the funding, we can talk about everything, but we make it a point to talk about someone doing something that you and I might take for granted. And when we talk about success stories, they could be like a month ago. We had a young man living in…he is in Olney, and he has CP, and he is immobile. He, you know, is in a wheelchair and his whole house was going to Florida, which is great in itself, right? And probably nine out of 10 people said he can’t go because of his mobility issues. Well, we had a staff member that said, mmm not taken that. She found a company in Florida that has wheelchairs that are able to be on the beach and in the water. So this young man who’s never seen the ocean before, you know, they have videos of him just having the water, hit him in the face, and he’s just had the best time of his life. Anybody else walking on a beach and seeing the ocean for the first time, you’re in awe, right? But you can then do like, you can always do that. This this young man probably never imagined that he could be there and he was there. So it’s that, that, that that’s awesome.
And so for all of the friends of CTF and important for that matter, that have sponsored things like the golf outing, right, that the jury minor golf outing for since 2009…you want to know where your money goes. You want to know what impact you’re making, made an impact on a young man’s life? They got to do something that he otherwise probably wouldn’t be able to experience. And so for all the people out there that are have donated to continue to donate, that’s exactly the impact you’re making. So stories like that are are not uncommon at CTF and which is why I love I love being a part of it as well.
Right? And that’s the it’s it’s that type of events in someone’s life that actually fundraising does cover. You know, it’s Not to keep the lights on…back in the day, maybe in 2008, right? But remember, it was how to keep the lights on and we’re passing and we do everything we possibly can. We had any other guy in Charleston and he’s also in a wheelchair. And for the last three years, he’s written to the City of Charleston once a month saying, why don’t you have a sidewalk in front of my house? I can’t get from A to B. I need a sidewalk. I need a sidewalk. And two months ago, we got his letter and it’s nicer out in Charleston and then it is up here. Right? He got the sidewalk.
You know, learning and teaching them about advocacy and their rights. It sticks. It really does.
Very cool. And I’m sure we can go on for a long time. And it’s it’s always fun to talk about those types of success stories, right? And not only the feel good, but just the impact that the agency is having and…and I’m not also not naive, right? I know there are a lot of challenges and we being a for-profit company of our own sets of challenges. And so we’re not absolved, you know, from the issues like COVID for an example or Workforce. And we feel that here and we know that you struggle with that as well, but in addition to or maybe just expand on either one of those. You know, what are, what’s the, what’s the biggest challenge right now? Or what’s one challenge you are laser-focused on fixing or dressing. You’re collaborating with your team, your COO, so if it’s Melissa or Becky, whoevver, “Hey team, we’ve got to get this right.”
Well, like it just I’ll give you two. The one is the one that everybody has and that’s work for stability. Right? I mean, it’s, we are at a very, very high more than ever before, we are at a high staff vacancy rate, maybe 31% up here in the suburbs. And it does cause issues in an agency. We would strive to…the stories I told you, we would strive to do that every single day. And sometimes with these type of Workforce issues we have right now, we go back to the health and safety of everybody. You know, that’s just the reality of it. And we have very proud moments when everyone’s healthy and safe. And that’s at our DSP level, our direct service professional level. And it is hard. But also I think what is the glue to every company is their middle management. You know, those are the ones that support the direct service personnel, relay information – the right information – and do a lot of the ground and paperwork. And that with, for the first time, Jason, we’ve really seen that we can’t hire these people. There’s no one out there. And nobody wants no longer wants what we call the Q position. Their caseworkers are really hard to find. Our house managers are very hard to find. And that never happened before. It was always – we didn’t have the DSP staff. Now. We still don’t have the all the DSP staff, but now we’re struggling to find the to the glue or struggling to keep our everything together because we’re the glue is getting pretty weak, and that’s what scares me the most because my connections are getting weaker.
It’s it’s that’s interesting. I, you know, I think everybody understands or least has an appreciation for the DSP challenges for our staffing and I think most people are aware that are in tune with the the industry that there’s a generation gap on the executive level. I think for you have a lot of people retiring and going on to the next more babe, the next phase of their life and what you don’t hear about…so it’s interesting, you brought that up the middle manager piece, right? That the connectivity is you called it between the execs and, and house managers, house managers are part of that middle management. Why do you think that is?
I think the stress level of it because they’re the ones that when DSP does not come to work there there. So their jobs are really 24/7. Okay. I also think the pay scale. I mean being a not-for-profit and being 95% pretty much relying on the state. We deal with a fixed budget and you know, even the state did a great job last year or giving us, you know, quite a big bump, we’re still under water. We can’t compete with the other industries, who also rely on middle managers, and I don’t think the people in college right now are going in this field. I think this, you know, I think healthcare is is in trouble. And I think Human Services is going to be in trouble. A people who are wanting to go into this field of work.
It doesn’t help, does it? And so if you’re competing for talent and part of your carrot approach is money, which is to everybody. I don’t care who you are. Right? If you were a mission trip mission-driven or you’re passionate about health care or you’re in a machine shop. Money does play an issue because we all have families that everybody, most people families and bills to pay. And what I what I’ve learned or come to appreciate about nonprofit leaders is more than most other agents industry that are forced to do more or the same with less. Right? I think Horton, for example, you know, we could acquire a new customer and get paid and then we could in turn, hopefully pay our employees more, right? That’s part of what we do with the income we generate. You don’t necessarily have that opportunity to change the rate structure. You can go out and get more clients, right? Hopefully, but you can’t change the rate in which are compensated. And so what are some of the things that you’re trying to do, right? To attract talent outside of “Hey, we’ll just pay you more. Come on in. We’ll just pay you whatever you want.” Right? And I love how nonprofits are almost forced and they can teach us. So I think all the for-profit companies out there listening. So if you’re a bank or an accounting firm listening to this, lean on your nonprofit leaders for ways to get creative and think outside the box. And so, what are some of those things you tried? At least, maybe not even you’ve tried to implement what you’ve heard working.
I think being allowing to be a little bit more flexible in their work schedule helps. If. So, if you’re a case manager, if you know, some of them now are working till 7:00 at night. Kids were in school. They had to go somewhere in the morning. When can you work is basically, right? Flexible in the amount of days because we are 24/7, maybe someone likes to be off on a Tuesday so they can work on a Saturday and then be off on a Tuesday. So we’re really I mean I’m old school like you say Irish and you know get to work at 8:00 and yeah leave at 5:00 and you know, I had a lot of been taught by a lot of nuns in my days. This truck service though. They’re so I personally take a step back and allow that to happen. That’s outside my box, right? And I just, I just think just having a more friendlier environment and, you know. And two, I think we’ve gotten away…we always try to address what you’ve done well. Because I think a lot of times at work, you know, you performance evalutation…it’s always on the negative side, you know? So we have, like now, we’re really, we have a cultural committee here. So we do an employee of the month and it could be anybody. It used to be just dsps now it’s anybody. I mean, I’ve been nominated yet and nominate me, right? And you know, and then I, we a certificate and I write him a personal note. I’m doing a lot of personal writing and I have my manager, my administrators do the same sentiment know, what’s their home address? Say, hey, you’ve done a great job and I really asked the staff what specifically made them, the employee of the month and I write it in there. I acknowledge that, you know, the lady with, you know, Melissa who got Austin the wheelchair was she was Employee of the Month? Oh my God, Melissa, you changed his life, you know, and I’ve gotten a really good feedback with this and I just think that that communication…we’ve gotten away from it. And I just think we’re just slowly trying to bring that back and personalize, our communication with everybody.
Yeah. That’s a really good example of a reminder to myself. I, you know, we used to have people here in the office all the time. And I think it was easier right to share. Gratitude. Could you walk by their desk? Yeah. I know. You’re on the way to lunch. Oh, hey, Mary Pat. Thank you so much. I love what you did with ABC and D that change this blah blah. Thank you so very much. Yeah. Well now I walk out my office door and I don’t even pass anybody. Yeah, and I don’t like that for a lot of reasons, but I think, you know, it’s a great call out to be intentional and mindfull about that because you hear stories all the time, people leave for a lot of reasons. One is they feel underappreciated and unheard. Yeah, you know there I mean dsbs, they work their butts off. They do a wonderful. They have a wonderfully, important job and I think you could probably sometimes be easy to feel unappreciated. So I commend you in the leadership team for doing that. It’s a great message for for myself and the rest people listening. So thanks for sharing that. Keeping with the St. Patrick’s Day theme if you will…I’m on an Irish kick. And so this will come out around St. Patrick’s Day. There’s a not really a proverb because it’s not, it’s not a proper, but it’s a saying as you slide down the banister of life. May the splinters never point in the wrong direction. Yeah. As the CEO of a large agency, it’s your responsibility to identify those splinters and navigate accordingly. So if you look out in the future and put your CEO lens on which you always have on, what are those splinters? What’s the future look like? What are you excited about? What scares you?
I think what scares me as we continue to see the trend of a Workforce issue, right? And what scares me is not having people to support people. Because that’s our job and we truly, in our industry, we need actual people, you know, employed…we can’t get by with anything else, but that human human contact, right? But that being said, Not-for-profits are probably always the last to be technology efficient, right? And so, you know, what is out there. There’s so many apps. There’s so many things that make your life easier, that make my life easier. Why not try to really focus laser focus that, adapt that to what our staff can do for these individuals, how technology can make our individuals more independent, so we don’t need as many staff. You know, so I think, as we look to the future, let’s embrace, like what we almost see almost every day. Like my Apple watch or, like, you’re a younger parent. I never liked. Probably still should do it. But, you know, I don’t have to locate my children…maybe once in a while, but you know, like, why not take that embracing technology? And once we like if we train someone to take a bus that we now know that they’re safe and we don’t have to follow them. We don’t have to have a staff member there. The whole time. We know they’re getting there. You know, we have to have backup, of course. Why can’t we have, you know, some staff monitor people at night? Pretty much people sleep. You know what, we have 1 or 2 staff there at the home or whatever. Why, how come we can’t like figure out living situations where we can have one staff monitor and then get there lickety-split. I mean, we just have to embrace the technology so I don’t need as many staff, but I still like keep my high-quality services. Yeah, so I am on a state committee and that is kind of my push with the community. Let’s embrace it. I know it costs money, but sometimes that some money is more well spent than in other places. Mhm. What I’m happy about, or what I’m looking forward to is, you know, just still be able to have the wherewithal and this agency, still alive and thriving in the next month before I’m gone. So more people can be supported and families feel that they have somewhere to go. It’s getting a little a lot of families. There’s a waiting list and stuff and it’s getting better. But you know, how can we sustain ourselves? And I think we can, because I think like you said, we are very creative, you know, and just still being there for these families. Because disabilities aren’t going to go away. You know, but the way, we do our supports and how we do them and encouraging families and supporting families…I think that I think we often get better at that. But I also believe that the future, I think that families don’t have to families of a third-grader shouldn’t have to worry.
No, I agree with that. On a couple of things. One is in the same vein we mentioned or shared that a lot of executive directors are retiring because they’re becoming of age. Right? And this this aging trend is not just started. Right? We we know that a lot of our consumers, our clients’ parents are aging as well. And so there will be more people. I would assume that would need services right in the near and mid and long-term future. And so I think it is important to get better and look for ways to improve. And I think I think the one thing with technologies that people will share some people is that their fear is that it makes things more impersonal, right? And but I believe that the example you just shared is an example of how it doesn’t. And I think that the key with technology is to use it and embrace it and keep that culture, keep that personal touch. And if you could do that, I think I’ll have some wild success on that. Yeah. I’m excited to see what that looks like for CTF in the future.
I am too. I mean if we’re going to like mission-driven and it’s, you know, support people to do the supports that you know, kind of give them their best life. And I think what they any individual that lives in our homes or attends our day programs, they’re all…the majority are going to say, “I want to be more independent.” They’re not going to say it in those words, but they’re going to give you an example of what they want to do. I want to live in my own apartment. I want a job…you just have to listen, right? And that is all all that we strive to do. And I just think there’s better ways to do it because of the technology eventually. We just have to catch up.
Well, that makes an awful lot of sense to me. We just have to be mindful enough to listen.
Yep. Yep and be brave enough to do something different.
There you go. Well, I don’t think there’s a in my opinion with my experience is not a shortage of bravery that goes around with a non-profit execs and agnostic. You take away the state and I that’s one reason why I look up to you and your peers so much and and I want to say thank you to you. Thank you to the wonderful work that CTF does and the foundation does. You’re a wonderful friend to the agency. We are so happy for your partnership and thank you for being a guest on the podcast today.
Thank you. Thank you for having me and you see the date made my day better. It’s another really good meeting just passed us by. Thanks you for all you do to Jason.
I appreciate you’re very, very welcome. Well, that’ll wrap it up until next time. Thank you everybody for tuning in to The One Thing podcast.