Nonprofit spotlight: Easter Seals redirects focus to early education

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO
Pandora Shaw-Dupras, CEO of Easter Seals, with Beau Bennett

Stepping away from its previous core service has allowed Easter Seals to double interventions where it is more effective.

When Pandora Shaw-Dupras took the helm of Easter Seals Central and Southeast Ohio, the organization was finding it difficult to fund its signature service-pediatric outpatient therapy.

Declining government reimbursements and increasing program costs meant the organization was struggling to pay therapists to work one-on-one helping children learn to walk and talk-services many have associated with the organization since its inception nearly 100 years ago. Easter Seals had always supplemented program costs with dollars donated through its various fundraisers, but following the recession, those dollars also were shrinking.

Shaw-Dupras, who served as the agency's director of programs and services before being named CEO in 2012, looked closely at all of Easter Seal's offerings. "It's all about balance," she says. "Looking at what we can do and do well and who we can best help."

The organization had other programs that served more individuals and required fewer supplemental dollars. Many were seeing better outcomes than the pediatric outpatient therapy. She also saw a growing number of other organizations that were offering the therapies throughout the region.

She decided to stop offering the individualized therapy.

"It was a very hard decision for us because we're Easter Seals," she says. "In the end it was a positive move."

It was one of many steps Shaw-Dupras has taken to increase the financial stability of the organization. Under her leadership, the organization increased the number of families served from 1,000 to more than 2,000. It also has retired all but its real estate debt. The organization's endowment fund and cash reserves increased from $1 million to $1.7 million between 2012 and 2015.

Shaw-Dupras' knowledge about the organization's programming and its various funding sources have helped her turn around the organization, says Jennifer Dove, a member of the Easter Seals Central and Southeast Ohio board. Dove praises Shaw-Dupras for being dedicated to ensuring that the organization focuses on sustainability.

"She's good at identifying needs and (seeing) where we have opportunities to meet needs," she says. "Her knowledge of that has been very instrumental."

While the local branch operates under the umbrella of the national organization, it has the autonomy to offer whatever type of programming best suits its population. It also must handle its own fundraising. Locally, the "Romancing the Grape" wine and food tasting is the largest fundraiser. The annual event, scheduled this year for April 30, generates more than $100,000.

Easter Seals has put more emphasis on early intervention for youngsters who have been identified with developmental delays. It offers classroom and in-home programs with wrap-around services like literacy skills, music therapy, parent workshops and parent-child play groups. These early education offerings allow the organization to serve more children and have measurable outcomes.

The organization, which serves 28 counties in Ohio and one in West Virginia, also is increasingly studying its communities to determine where there are gaps in services for individuals with disabilities. Once they understand the needs, they can look for evidence-based programs that address them, Shaw-Dupras says.

"We want to find programs where our dollars can have the biggest impact. We want to be good stewards," Shaw-Dupras says.

Shaw-Dupras' willingness to make tough decisions and ability to focus on the future has made her tenure with the organization a success, says Ada Perkins, president of the Easter Seals Central and Southeast Ohio board.

"She has a vision," she says. "She is honest and upfront about what she is thinking for the future."

Right now, she's thinking about how to grow the organization's budget from $5 million to $8-$10 million. In order to accomplish that, she and the board are looking at several possibilities: merging with another organization or adding a social enterprise operation-a revenue-generating businesses that supports a nonprofit organization-or both.

"We are finally in a place where we are very stable," she says. "We're ready to go."

Creating a social enterprise would be an ideal way to earn money from one of the agency's core competencies to help sustain the organization financially, she says. Merging with another organization also would help Easter Seals reach more clients and, hopefully, realize economies of scale and find more cost-effective ways to solve problems, she says.

"It's the right time to look at becoming a large organization because we foresee a larger need."

Melissa Kossler Dutton is a freelance writer.

Easter Seals Central and Southeast Ohio

3830 Trueman Court, Hilliard 43026

Business: Nonprofit whose mission is to change the way the world defines and views disabilities by making profound, positive differences in peoples' lives every day, accomplished through support services, advocacy and education.

Central Ohio employees: 63

Central Ohio volunteers: 210

2015 revenue: $5.2 million