Nonprofit Giant National Church Residences Becomes Industry Pacesetter in Workforce Equity Efforts

The Black Lives Matter movement focused global attention on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion this year, and senior living providers have responded in various ways to calls for change.

This work has been ongoing at National Church Residences, one of the largest nonprofit senior housing providers in the United States, with about 310 senior living and affordable housing communities across 25 states and Puerto Rico. Now, the organization has launched an Office of Employee Engagement that is dedicated to driving meaningful — and measurable — improvement.

“We will hold our organization accountable to the immediate change we want to see in the world,” National Church Residences President and CEO Mark Ricketts said, in an announcement of the new office.

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The nonprofit has elevated two executives — Danielle Willis and Julie Fox — to new roles, and they are leading the Office of Employee Engagement. Willis is now senior vice president of employee engagement and chief diversity officer, and Fox is vice president of engagement and leadership development.

National Church Residences has been pursuing greater diversity, equity and inclusion for several years, but shifted into a new gear after the killing of George Floyd by police, Willis told Senior Housing News. The organization made public and private commitments to combating systemic racism and created an anti-racism task force.

That task force officially kicked off around Juneteenth, with 12 members and a charter. Those 12 members included a cross-section of people from the workforce of 2,800 employees, including frontline and corporate positions. The task force identified 10 areas of focus, such as resident accountability/education and minority partnerships, and then solicited additional staff to provide recommendations on those areas. In all, about 60 people — including senior leaders — were involved.

“We wanted to ensure that staff recognized this isn’t an HR thing, but this is about the entire organization,” Willis said.

In light of all the feedback received through this effort — as well as through surveys, work groups, culture committees and other initiatives going back at least to 2018 — the organization’s executive and board leaders recognized that dedicated resources would be required to achieve the needed progress. Given that National Church Residences is on a July 1 – June 30 budget cycle, the board was able to allocate these resources over the summer and stand up the new office.

The office currently consists of just Willis and Fox, but they are working in close concert across the organization and in particular with the HR and education division. National Church Residences also has been working since 2018 with Genesis Consulting to get an outside, objective perspective on these issues and efforts at change.

Fox and Willis view the final quarter of 2020 as a period of benchmarking, assessing and surveying, to gauge how National Church Residences is currently doing in areas such as benefits, management training and outside partnerships with minority-led groups.

After assessing where the most significant gaps lie, Willis and Fox will prioritize further action. But, they already have some inkling of where work is needed, thanks to information that has been collected by the anti-racism task force and through other efforts.

“With career development, we’ve heard that more and more individuals would like to grow professionally, advance their careers and be seen as leaders,” Fox told SHN.

Career advancement appears to be an area where many senior living providers could improve. About one in four frontline workers in the industry is Black, according to a 2018 analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation. However, there are very few black CEOs or other top leaders in the industry.

National Church Residences already has some tools that can be leveraged to improve upward mobility of workers, Fox noted. One such tool is a modular series of education resources on servant leadership.

The work of the Office of Employee Engagement will be data-driven. The HR team recently hired an HR business analyst, who is working with Willis and Fox on how to analyze demographic information around turnover, retention, career mobility and other areas. Having this information will flag where the organization is falling short and will be a way of tracking progress.

The recent workforce surveys have revealed one clear strength: Workers are united around a common mission of embracing and serving seniors. Willis and Fox plan to build on this foundation as they seek to shift the culture toward a preferred employee experience.

“It’s one thing to stand up an office and have metrics, but how we’re going to get there, how we’re going to make the changes in our culture to be truly responsive to what our staff are telling us, I think that how is important,” Fox said.

In other words, creating new policies and protocols is necessary, but Willis and Fox emphasized that connecting everyone in the organization to the new office’s mission, and demonstrating how everyone has a circle of influence and can play a part in driving toward shared goals, will be keys to achieving lasting change. 

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