SERVICENET: NONPROFIT LEADER TAKES AN ENTREPREUEURIAL APPROACH TO HER WORK

Sue Stubbs called it “a fear-based choice.”

She was referring to her decision to heed the advice of the retiring director of the small nonprofit she was then working for—the Hampshire Assoc. for Mental Health—to think seriously about succeeding him.

“This was not my chosen career path, but I was afraid they were going to hire someone I didn’t like and I would have to leave,” said Stubbs, adding quickly that her decision to apply for that job turned out to be an extremely smart career move, and one that would ultimately impact the local landscape—and the lives of tens of thousands of people—in ways she probably couldn’t have imagined back in 1980.

Indeed, the nonprofit now known as ServiceNet has grown exponentially over the past three decades, based on any yardstick one cares to use, starting with annual revenue. It was less than $1 million in 1980, and it’s now approaching $60 million.

But there are other, for more important measures. The agency now employs close to 1,500 people and boasts more than 100 programs located across Western and Central Massachusetts, ranging from homeless shelters to behavioral-health centers to the Prospect Meadow Farm in Hatfield, which we’ll hear more about later.

These programs stretch from Pittsfield to West Boylston (one of the latest additions to the portfolio); from Turners Falls to Longmeadow.

They served more than 12,000 people across this region in 2016, providing a broad range of services, including those focused in addiction, brain injury, support for children and adolescents, developmental disability, home care, mental-health recovery, and much more.

What’s behind all the numbers and stars on a map indicating those locations, said Stubbs, is a simple mission—“to enhance the quality of life in adults, children, and families, through the provision of effective and responsive clinical, residential, rehabilitative, recovery, and support service.”—and also a somewhat unique operating philosophy, or mindset.

To describe it, the energetic, hands-on Stubbs would first use the term ‘entrepreneurial,’ which certainly fits, and then elaborate.

“There was a time when I didn’t believe that the corporate culture applied to the nonprofit world,” she explained. “The thinking was, ‘we’re here to do good, to do something socially valuable, we don’t care about money.’
“Over time, my thinking changed,” she went on. “The corporate culture certainly does apply to the nonprofit world, or it should, anyways.”

By that, she meant thinking, well, as a business might, starting with an entrepreneurial bent, an eye towards calculated risk taking, a willingness to seize opportunities for growth and diversification when they come into view rather than remaining on the sidelines and playing it safe, and the ability to move quickly to seize such opportunities.

And these opportunities come in many forms, just as they do in business, she said, citing, as examples, mergers and acquisitions, new product or service development, and creation of new and better ways of doing things.

With that, she offered a few examples of these principles in action to show how ServiceNet has grown and evolved over the years.

The first involves the development of services, specifically day-program sites, for those with brain injuries. There were no such facilities in the region, said Stubbs, adding that ServiceNet was asked to explore the means and viability of creating one, an example of how the agency has responded to changing and emerging needs within society.

The process started with what would be called R&D in the business world, said Stubbs, noting that she and other team members were essentially out in front of televisions,” she recalled, adding that ServiceNet blueprinted and then put in place a better model, one that involves physical, occupational, and speech therapy, as well as counseling to support people’s mental and emotional well-being. The name given to the facility in Chicopee—the Enrichment Center—speaks volumes about its intended purpose, and it has worked out so well, a second center, by the same name, was established in West Boylston, extending ServiceNet’s reach just north of Worcester.

The second example is the Prospect Meadow Farm, which ServiceNet bought with the purpose of developing vocational skills and creating work opportunities to individuals with developmental disabilities, autism, or brain injuries. The farm now specializes in everything from chickens and pigs to shiitake mushrooms.

Looking back, Stubbs said her decision to hire Shawn Robinson to run the farm was one example of how she didn’t operate in corporate fashion.

“There was nothing on his resume to indicate he could run a farm, but he had a great rapport with people and plenty of creative energy. Most people in business wouldn’t have hired him,” she said, adding that her decision turned out to be a great one.

Just like that one she made in 1980.

FACES OF BUSINESS
BUSINESSWEST
MAY 2017
BY GEORGE O’BRIEN