Sharon Osborne on Three Decades of Nonprofit Leadership and System Dismantling

Sharon Osborne (center) celebrates in 2014 the opening of the Children’s Home Society & Trust Foundation, which raises private revenues to support the operating entity in perpetuity. Photo: Children’s Home Society.

In the 1980s, the Children’s Home Society of Washington (CHSW) brought Sharon Osborne in as a consultant to help them find some new executive management. She was a young social worker, who had helped set up Kentucky’s early childhood development network, and had a master’s degree in business.

It didn’t take the organization long to figure out that the right leader for the place was her.

Osborne become CEO in 1989, tasked with a mission of getting CHSW out of residential programs and congregate foster care, and into the community. In 2003, she became the founding board chair of the Children’s Home Society of America (CHSA), which was established to help grow a network of similar providers, foster practice-based research and provide a central advocacy vehicle for them.

“Sharon’s vision, leadership and perseverance were critical in the founding and building of the Children’s Home Society of America,” said CHSA President Dave Bundy.

She retires at the top of an organization with 23 regional areas and nothing but community-based services. She hands off the reins to Dave Newell as CHSW moves on a strategic plan to create whole-family service hubs around the state.

Osborne talked to The Chronicle of Social Change about her career, nonprofit leadership and what she sees on the horizon for youth services.

What does retirement look like for Sharon Osborne?

I’ve been asked to teach. I hope to still be involved with Children’s Home Society of America (CHSA), they’re talking about doing an executive fellowship that could help out in certain areas.

I’ve always traveled a lot, and I have a husband who loves to travel. And we live on our little mini-farm, where we do our gardening and have our animals.

What kind of animals?

We have llamas and dogs. Some typical farm-like animals, not too many. And we have birds, my husband keeps quite an aviary.

What was your first job in this field?

I was an itinerant social worker in Kentucky. And I primarily focused on early childhood development. Starting early child programs in the state, and doing a good deal with licensing for a lot of in-home services.

I spent a lot time helping providers basically raise the level of practice and think about, what kinds of impact are we having, beyond babysitting? A lot of it was really educating providers and families about the opportunities young kids could have in a loving, academically supportive environment. It was the beginning of the War on Poverty, and there was a big focus on working with young children.

Osborne riding the merry-go-round at a Children’s Home Society holiday event. Photo: Children’s Home Society.

So you became CEO of Children’s Home Society-Washington in 1989. What was the biggest thing going on with the organization that you remember from that year?

It was an economic downturn, not as serious as the last recession. Our organization was primarily doing foster care and residential care. And there was beginning to be national and local effort to move away from residential. And that was the reason I was hired quite frankly, to make that a more accelerated and reflective move.

How different is CHSW’s service array now?

It took almost 20 years to get us out [of residential care]. We closed our last one in 2010, or maybe 2008, I think.

There are always children who will require congregate care. I’m not sure I can say it’s never needed. Part of what this organization has been committed to is always taking care of children even if we transition how we support them. And that there are community-based services that can work with them if they’re not in a congregate setting.

Do you think there’s still a place for group homes? Not clinical ones focused on therapeutic goals, just group settings for youth in care.

I think in terms of continuity of care, there’s typically a role for every service we’ve ever developed. But defining it that way, with no therapeutic base, just a shelter – I think there is a role in a temporary way. Because there are times a family, for whatever reason, wants to care for a child and can’t maintain.

So as a temporary shelter. But is there a place for groups that gather kids for longer? I don’t.

They have to be temporary in nature. Like a respite. I think that’s one use for them. And as a transition maybe, for whatever the situation has been … a youth on the street, or in institutional care.

I would add that historically, the group homes operating with a therapeutic milieu have, in my experience, been more successful than larger [residential] programs.

There is always a natural inclination from generation to generation to assume that the present generation of kids are “harder,” or family problems are “harder.” Do you think in terms of the youth you serve, the nature of their challenges in life and their prosocial assets are fundamentally different than when you started?

As I went around the state with Dave [Newell] – and we have 23 locations around state, so we serve high intensity urban areas and isolated communities that look like Appalachia –

without exception, we are hearing that they are working with family situations that are, I’d hate to use the word “harder,” but are more complicated. They present with more challenges.

A child brought to us with behavioral problems, historically, maybe we get in and find it’s related to abuse, neglect, whatever. More now, we’re likely to find that, and that there are bigger problems. Like that the family has no place to live. About 15 to 20 percent of the kids in our early childhood development programs are homeless.

Housing is a major, major issue. The kids and families are not “harder,” but the challenges in their daily life, the systems they have to navigate, make the problems we see more complicated.

Osborne receives the Seattle Business Magazine’s 2018 Nonprofit Executive of the Year. Photo: Children’s Home Society

What single accomplishment or success at CHS-Washington are you most proud of?

Some of the problems we face are really deep-seated, like substance abuse and mental health. But there are lot of things we can do in terms of helping people to get ahead of problems.

I’ve been here long enough to see families who were struggling, maybe came to one our programs, or came in as foster child. And now, we have worked with them long enough to see the cycle of poverty broken in their families.

What have you learned about nonprofit management that you’d pass on as advice to a new CEO coming into a direct service organization now?

In today’s world, a new CEO really needs to understand the business aspect of the work we do. I think she or he has to have business acumen to run a multi-million dollar operation.

And if you’re doing it only with public dollars, then they don’t have enough money to do it adequately. If you can get public revenue to pay for the cost of care, and you’re trying to do anything innovative or creative, all of that requires private money.

Twenty-five percent of our $30 million budget is private dollars. We’re looking now to create a foundation to throw off some money to the annual budget, for when the hard times come. So I would want them to understand it takes a diverse business model, with public and private money, to manage these organizations today.

Another big challenge, but a real opportunity: We are working with a diverse workforce population. There are four different generations of people working in a typical large nonprofit. And the drivers for those people, what incentivizes them to do work, really differs. So how can we attract dedicated and creative people, and more importantly, retain them.

Finally, and this is very critical as CEO: You are listening to donors and funders, but there are obvious ones we overlook. You have to listen to what children are needing and saying, and what parents need to help them thrive.

As you step down, what do you see as the biggest opportunities and the biggest obstacles facing the youth services community right now?

In this new legislation, the Family First Act, it’s not perfect, and there is a lot of concerns about, ‘Can we make this sea change from deep end to prevention?’ It’s been something I’ve been building my whole career. CHSW shows that it can be done, and done effectively. But we have systems set up in this country that are designed to self-perpetuate the silo effect. And the focus is working kids and families once they get in trouble.

It’s the most significant legislation since the War on Poverty, in terms of a big idea, and it does make a difference if we put our energy in front of the problem. So that’s a double-edged sword: Can we dismantle existing ways, and some systems need that, and do business in a way that will have a greater return on investment?

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.