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Transformation through teamwork

Throughout its history, Mennonite Home Communities of Ohio (MHCO) has demonstrated an ability to adapt to change, to anticipate elder’s needs, and to implement innovative programs that enhance its mission. Now, as the largest senior living provider in Allen County, this Bluffton continuing care retirement community is transforming its skilled nursing care with the Green House® model of care.

Since being introduced in 2003, the Green House model has spread to over 40 campuses in 29 states. MHCO’s long-term goal is to build six Green House homes on its newest campus, Willow Ridge; they will be the first such homes in Ohio.

MHCO’s capital campaign for the Green House Project has seen more than its share of challenges. But with patience, hard work and excellent leadership, MHCO is anticipating the completion of its first two homes, for which a ground blessing was held in October.

As Advancement Associates’ communications associate, I (Sherilyn Ortman) recently asked CEO Laura Voth and Doug Luginbill, development officer, to reflect on getting to this point. As they shared their journey, I was struck by the spirit of teamwork that pervades their interaction and guides their efforts. So that you, the reader, can see it too, allow me to step out of the interview at this point. Aside from occasional comments to provide context (in italics), I invite you to simply “listen in” as Laura and Doug share their story from the beginning.

LV: In 2004 we were working with an architect and drawing up a whole new building based on “neighborhood” living. We had had a very positive experience with nine- and ten-person dementia units based on that concept. Our CEO at the time was also hearing about this new “Green House” style of care. In April 2004 a group of us went to Tupelo, Mississippi, where the first Green House homes had just been built. We returned home convinced that this was a better model of care and the house itself was a necessary tool. By Oct. 2004 the board of directors had signed on.

We made two trips (once in 2005 and again in 2007) to the Ohio Department of Health because we knew they had to be on board to proceed. Initially, their response was “proceed with caution.” By now, the Ohio Department of Health and the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare are familiar with the Green House model of care and are strong supporters. We still had to obtain a “Certificate of Need,” which was a very extensive process that took about six months to complete.

In 2005, MHCO hired Advancement Associates (AAI) to conduct a feasibility study for the construction of two Green House homes. That study showed sufficient stakeholder support for the proposed $2 million project. A capital campaign was launched later that year but soon encountered some unforeseen obstacles, which slowed its progress for the next several months.

LV: Part of problem was that we didn’t have a final plan when we started the campaign. There were things we didn’t have in place . . . like a strategic expansion plan. We originally had a plan for 10 new houses and then, for a long time, six. But we were thinking in terms of our current campus (actually two campuses about one mile apart from each other). We realized that if we really wanted to replace all 92 beds of skilled nursing care, we didn’t want to do a few here and a few there and maintain that divided campus. In 2007 we bought 15 acres of land across from our Maple Crest campus. That completely changed the picture.

The campaign worked through eight or nine financial pro formas. Though stakeholder support was strong, we had to consider how much debt the organization was willing to take on for additional homes. In hindsight we see that we needed that financial picture and strategic plan in place earlier. And in the midst of figuring all that out, 2008 happened and the economy tanked. Our CEO also resigned that year to follow a different career path. People were getting nervous because, by then, we’d already been talking about our plans for awhile. The board hired an interim CEO with the directive, “No matter what else you do, advance this Green House project.”

But the campaign continued to lose steam amidst multiple transitions; among other factors, MHCO’s contract with AAI also ended in 2008. About one year ago, MHCO received a large trust, which it eventually designated for the campaign. Leadership settled on a revised goal of $2.1 million—the additional $100,000 will be used to renovate several existing rooms into a new rehabilitation unit—and entered a new contract with AAI. Clarifying the scope of the campaign was a crucial turning point that allowed it to regain momentum, according to Doug, who was new to the job.

LV: You know how I got Doug’s name? When I became CEO in February 2009, we had one person doing both marketing and fund development. I was looking to divide the responsibilities. A former fund developer for Bluffton University was on our campaign committee. I asked his advice. That conversation turned to criteria for a good development officer and he commented, “What you really need is a pastoral type.” As he left, he turned around in the doorway and said, “You know, Doug Luginbill is coming back.” I knew Doug from when he had been [pastor] at First Mennonite Church here in Bluffton. So I called him.

DL: I had concluded a pastorate in Wichita, Kansas and moved back to Bluffton for a one-year interim position at Salem Mennonite Church. I happened to be visiting a member of the congregation at another nursing home when Laura left a message on my cell phone. I didn’t know what the conversation would be about. I figured maybe the chaplain was leaving.

Though he had no idea that fund development was on the horizon when he left Kansas, Doug had some experience with nonprofit fundraising, having served six years as executive director of a church-related camp. He met with Laura and assumed his current role with MHCO in January 2010.

DL: Pastoral ministry was a wonderful training ground for this position. You use a lot of the same skills in both kinds of work, particularly one-on-one contact. It’s very natural for me to go into the place people call home and have conversations.

I will say that coming into this position during a campaign was kind of scary. At the same time, I’ve been in a lot of nursing homes visiting people over the years, and I knew there had to be a better way to do skilled nursing care. Laura talked so passionately about the Green House homes that I kind of picked up her passion as well. And I could tell that most of the leadership staff was committed to the project.

LV: But I would say that some staff were getting discouraged. They had been dreaming a long time already and kind of had the attitude, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” As far as the community goes, by the time Doug arrived, we were finishing some of the first pledges and still nothing had happened. Some donors were saying “What’s taking so long?” One even asked [our former director of fund development], “Well, if you don’t do it, am I going to get my money back?” There was a general sense of whether or not we were ever going to pull it off.

DL: To follow someone, I need to believe in their integrity and capabilities. Laura demonstrated that through her long history here.

LV: I’ve been here 29 years. I began as a social worker for Mennonite Memorial Home [a predecessor to the organization], then moved to admissions and then became administrator of the nursing home in 2001.

DL: So she knows this organization inside and out. Her vision and commitment to seeing the project through came through over and over again. When I started here Laura was still in her first year as CEO, having worked as a peer with many of those staff. It can take time for peers to become fully supportive, but, from what I gather, the staff has appreciated Laura’s more collaborative style. If I were to walk in doors now, I believe I would see a much more cohesive team.

LV: When I first talked with Doug, I really pushed hard on the development side of the job. But when our conversation was over, I realized we had just advanced our church relationships a hundred fold by having him as part of our team.

DL: My position is Director of Resource Development and Church Relations. I enjoy visiting with and encouraging pastors. The position gives me opportunities to be in churches, to share our vision at Mennonite Home Communities and even to preach on occasion.

LV: We are so much more connected to our churches now than we were two years ago. Becky [Drumm of Advancement Associates] keeps talking about how the success of this will depend on long-term relationship building; that’s what Doug has brought to our team.

DL: For me, one of the most gratifying parts of the campaign has been developing relationships with people in the community. When pastoring, I knew my own congregation well, but I was pretty narrowly-focused to the Mennonite Church. This has helped me broaden my understanding of the Bluffton community as a whole, and get to know people that I wouldn’t normally have any other reason to connect with. I’ve also been reminded that this work is a marathon, not a sprint!

LV: One thing I have observed about this campaign is that it’s a process of whittling away. We have a $2.1 million goal and we’re at $1.7. That’s incredible! Aside from a large trust, we haven’t gotten more than one $100,000 gift. But many people each doing a little makes a lot. That’s the way it is with volunteer hours, with money, with so many things. With hard work, it will come if you’re patient.