Mary Hutchison stepped down from her position as executive director of the Community Council in December 2016. The Community Council serves as a clearinghouse for more than 180 health and social service agencies in St. Charles County. During her 12-year leadership position, she oversaw a number of collaborative efforts to improve human services in the Tri-County region of St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren Counties, with significant success.
“We strengthened the capacity of the community to coordinate and evaluate human service delivery ,” she said. “Helping organizations gain the ability to take a broader view of the challenges facing the community as a whole. There is a greater awareness throughout the community today about homelessness and other challenges facing fragile families. Organizations now have more forums and tools to collaborate.”
With regard to homelessness, Mary noted that the Tri-County region has some 800 to 900 homeless people, about two-thirds the number found in St. Louis City. With the rapid ongoing population growth in the region, there are gaps in housing and shelter resources, and some people are ‘falling through the cracks.’ While the community is very generous and engaged in meeting the needs of citizens, there is a disparity in public funding that is difficult to overcome.
To foster a collaborative spirit around issues such as homelessness, the Community Council under Mary’s leadership reached out to a wide range of organizations, including churches, schools, service clubs, nonprofits, businesses and government agencies. A key step was the introduction of new technology that created a shared database around the homelessness issue.
“Twelve years ago our community had little understanding of the characteristics and scope of the homeless problem in St. Charles,” she explained. “Today, we have a shared database that helps everyone focused on this issue to see what resources – housing, food and other support services are available and where the gaps exist. It has allowed agencies to see new possibilities and avenues for cooperation.”
Bringing multiple agencies together to share data and work collaboratively is never a simple task. The Council’s approach includes working with nonprofit leaders to explain the potential of a shared approach, training users in each agency on how to use the technology, and working with the organizations to develop and implement a common set of policies around data input and reporting.
“It helps that HUD requires homeless data at the community level,” she added. “Using technology to create a clear view of community need is fostering new behaviors among service providers and is opening up new pathways for cooperation in service delivery.”
That theme of cooperation and collaboration has pervaded all aspects of Mary’s work at the Community Council. She cited the chance for St. Charles and other outlying communities to be engaged regionally as a particular opportunity she has faced. “It’s important to work with our regional partners,” she said. ““The burden of funding services is increasingly shifting downward to more local levels – from the federal government to the states and from the states to the counties and municipalities. So it’s really up to local residents to decide how they are going to care for citizens who need assistance. We need to help local funders see the big picture.”
“There is real value in creating linkages across all sectors and systems,” she added. “Oftentimes, addressing the issues that confront us require the involvement not just of social services organizations, but schools, healthcare groups, justice agencies, and others. The challenge is to be courageous, to be open to new ideas, and to be a champion for the most vulnerable in our community.”
As Mary heads off for the next chapter of her community engagement, she offered some advice for those that will follow here.
“Tomorrow’s nonprofit leaders will need a wide range of people skills and business skills – finance, marketing, team building, planning, and relationship building. Additionally, they will need to listen in an empathic way and develop effective storytelling skills. I would include the nuance that they need to listen to those they do not normally hear; that is, they need to intentionally create and find formats for listening to others. Stories are essential for developing empathy in ourselves and for helping others understand the organizational mission.”
“I am very grateful for the people I worked with and the learning opportunities I had at the Community Council,” she concluded. “My work has been about working with multiple organizations to improve the community. I hope to continue to advocate for vulnerable people in our community.”