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The Outreach Center: Taking Risks to Advance Mission

Acadiana Outreach CenterThe Acadiana Outreach Center has a 20-year track record of providing an array of services to individuals and families in poverty, including mental health and substance abuse treatment. Five center-operated “recovery homes” offer a place where individuals with a history of substance abuse and mental illness can stay and receive treatment.

The recovery homes have become a way station for countless people over the years as they worked toward a better life. The combination of housing and effective treatment has proved so successful that a long waiting-list developed for the homes. “We ended up having to turn people away, and a lot of them were willing to pay for the services we were providing for free,” said Valerie Keller, former CEO of the center.

Such interest in the program prompted Keller and her staff and board to do some thinking: What if we could have a bigger, nicer space in which to do this work? What if we could create a beautiful, yet functional facility where people could live and take advantage of a full array of behavioral health services? And what if we could offer these services to people who could pay for them through insurance or out of their own pocket, and then use that money to help cover the costs of serving people who couldn’t?

While they were batting these ideas and dreams around, Keller and her colleagues learned about a local nursing home facility that had been built but never occupied. Keller called it “a gorgeous place” – 30,000 square feet, with 32 apartments, situated on six pastoral acres. She understood from the start that opening the new facility would be a risk, requiring added resources and placing new demands on the center’s management and staff. Still, within months, Keller negotiated a lease and approached the state for one-time “seed” funding to open the facility as a residential treatment center.

The pitch to the state was that the facility would provide high-level service to clients of mixed incomes, offering a national model for the provision of substance abuse and mental health treatment in an affordable, sustainable way. The state responded with a $1 million start-up investment.

Developing the Plan

With the start-up funding in hand, the center still needed a detailed plan for getting the facility up and running. “It’s like we were in a speeding car going 90 miles an hour down the road. We had a facility and a lease and money, but now we had to have a plan,” said Keller. She added that the state’s funding was being provided on a “use it or lose it” basis; all funds needed to be spent by the end of the state’s fiscal year on June 30, 2010.

Keller and her colleagues worked on their business plan while participating in the Social Innovators Institute. Developing the plan allowed them to chart a course toward realizing their hopes and dreams for the new facility. Yes, they had taken a big risk, but they became more comfortable that it was a risk worth taking as they wrestled with exactly how to turn the facility into a viable enterprise. As they scoped out the plan, they envisioned a facility with 90 beds and a projected 800 customers each year, with average net profit margins of 18 percent for the first three years.

“As you go through this structured planning process you start to see that you can do this. You gain confidence that you can manage the risk and that the risk is worth it,” Keller said.

Among the key insights for Keller and her colleagues as they embarked on their planning work was that they needed more than just a plan; they need the human capital to execute it. The center’s board, staff, clients and community supporters all would need to play an active part in making its vision real.

Keller said a key insight from her participation in the institute has been the importance of finding “champions” for various aspects of the plan – from marketing and program development to financials. These champions (usually staff members) are responsible for working with other staff, board members and outside experts to generate ideas and develop strategies to support the bigger plan.

Moving On
Now that the business plan is complete and Keller’s participation in the institute is over, she has recently transitioned to a new role as President and CEO of a consulting firm she founded to support social enterprises in developing countries and to assist for-profit organizations focusing on corporate social responsibility.

Her role with the Outreach Center, Keller said, has been to guide the development of the plan and to put the pieces in place for the new facility to succeed. From the start of the process, she and her board understood that they would want an experienced specialist to lead the center once a solid business plan was in place.

The Outreach Center recently concluded a nationwide search with the announcement that they have hired a behavioral health expert, Rick Newton, to succeed Keller as CEO.

Keller believes she is leaving the center in good hands, and with a board and staff who are fully supportive and “bought in” as the organization starts an exciting new chapter in its life. “You realize in this work that it’s all about the people,” Keller said. “This is everybody’s work.”


About Community Wealth Partners

At Community Wealth Partners we dream of a world in which all people thrive. To realize this dream, we help change agents solve social problems at the magnitude they exist. As a Share Our Strength organization, we bring the successful practices of one of the nation’s leading anti-hunger, anti-poverty organizations to hundreds of change agents nationwide.

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