As many of you know, we spend a lot of time learning about Napa County's nonprofit sector--we conduct more than 200 site visits a year with agencies and programs to hear what they are doing, how they are doing it and what their needs are.
One of our favorite parts of those conversations is getting to know the leaders of local organizations. For instance, hearing about how they landed in the nonprofit sector, what they want the community to know about their work, and why they stick with it. So, we've decided to share highlights of those conversations with you, from time to time, in this newsletter.
We recently talked with Beth Kahiga, who is Executive Director for Napa Valley Support Services (NVSS).
NVSS began helping adults with developmental disabilities in 1956, when a group of concerned parents wanted their disabled adult children to participate in meaningful activities during the day. Since that time, NVSS has grown into a $3.6-million agency that has three core programs offering work-based support services to 375 adults with developmental or physical disabilities.
Beth grew up in Napa and started working at NVSS part-time when she was in high school. She's held every non-administrative job at the nonprofit, as well as her current role as Executive Director (she was appointed ED in 2002). She has a master's degree in rehabilitation administration from the University of San Francisco.
NVCF: How would you describe NVSS' work to people that are unfamiliar with special needs programs?
Beth: We provide support to adults [ages 18 and older] with all types of disabilities to help them find a job and earn an income. We help a wide range of people--from someone who has a back injury that makes working a real challenge all the way to a person that needs assistance every day remembering how to do their job. We also help people with hidden disabilities like chronic anxiety.
NVCF: Disabilities can be visible and invisible, and NVSS works with the spectrum. What are the challenges of engaging donors around the cause of working with adults with special needs?
Beth: If you don't know a person or have a person in your life or your family that has a disability, it's difficult to understand what that means, what kind of support someone needs, especially when you're talking about someone that has a hidden disability. For instance, it's easy to dismiss someone with an invisible disability, like an anxiety disorder, and say, "it's not true" that this person has challenges. I often hear, in reference to people with developmental disabilities, "Their families should take care of them." I don't think many of us understand what's involved in working with and taking care of a person with a severe disability. It can be very, very challenging.
NVCF: How are NVSS' services useful for a parent who has a child with developmental disabilities that has grown up and graduated high school?
Beth: One of the things parents deal with is the broken "promise." When you have a child, our culture says, "That child will go to college, they'll earn a degree, they'll have a family and I'm going to be a grandparent at some point." When you have a child with a disability, that cultural "promise" vanishes.
Often parents [with disabled kids who've graduated high school] don't know what the choices are for their kids or how to get their kids to articulate what they want. Can they be a member of the community, where are they going to live, what are they going to do? What are their dreams and aspirations and how are they going to be met? Our expertise is to work with special needs adults to identify their employment aspirations and fulfill them.
NVCF: How long have you been at NVSS and what was your first position?
Beth: I've been at NVSS for 38 years, and my first job was an instructional assistant. NVSS had 25 clients at that time, all of whom were developmentally disabled, and I helped the instructors that worked with these clients. We helped clients with their daily living activities at that time, so I'd help people learn how to make a bed, for example.
I gravitated toward working with people that had behavior challenges, and at NVSS we use a humanistic approach to behavior management with our clients. We see most socially inappropriate behavior as a request for something. We teach our clients how to make that request in a socially acceptable manner. I really love working with staff to understand and identify what our clients are trying to communicate and how we can help them.
NVCF: How do you stay motivated and continue to innovate?
Beth: Living a balanced life is important. As an ED, you are looking at how to move the agency forward. You are always looking at continuous quality improvement for each one of the programs, plus working with the Board, and that combination is a tall order. It's important to take time off and not work 80 hours a week because burnout is a huge risk. It also helps me to take stock of how far we've come as an organization, and how our work affects people--we have clients that are working all over Napa now. Our Board also has come a long way and now is highly engaged. Seeing all of those changes is a huge motivator for me.
NVCF: How do you see Napa County's nonprofit sector changing?
Beth: I think the nonprofits here have become more collaborative, more open, are sharing more information.
NVCF: What do you think the biggest challenge is for our local nonprofit sector right now?
Beth: I think the biggest challenge is to get operational costs, aka "overhead," funded. NVSS' administrative costs are 13 percent, and have been lower than that, and such low overhead can drain an organization. Staff need the resources to run their programs, and need unrestricted dollars to innovate, grow and expand. We have to be able to make this case to our donors, and overcome the press coverage of the few "bad seeds" in the nonprofit sector that misuse funds or are grossly overpaid.
NVCF: How do you motivate your staff of 75?
Beth: I'm around and I encourage teamwork at all levels. I visit all of our programs on a regular basis and try to have a personal connection with all our staff. I facilitate a 3-day orientation for all new staff (usually in groups of 5-8 people), and during that time they see that I'm a person with expertise, too, not just a figurehead, and that I understand their job is challenging, and that I care.
NVCF: What do you love about your job?
Beth: I really like working with our Board of Directors. They are such wonderful people, most have family members with disabilities and have a real passion for NVSS' work. I look to them for support in building the organization and they are really stepping up to the plate.