A willingness to lead and a desire to help others

April 4, 2010
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Deborah J. Nykamp has become an expert at mergers.

Bishop Walter Hurley of the Diocese of Grand Rapids tabbed Nykamp in 2007 to meld three social services agencies into one: Catholic Charities West Michigan. Little did Nykamp know that just two years later, she would be involved in another merger of a more personal sort: marriage.

“I just had a willingness to do leadership — my own personal call to do that and give back,” Nykamp said. “To run a good agency that is cost effective, moral and ethical … so you’re helping the greatest number of people: That’s really important to me, and that’s why I’m in this area and in this field.”

CCWM offers programs in community outreach, behavioral health, counseling, child welfare and family preservation in the Catholic diocese’s 11-county region in West Michigan. The organization serves thousands of people annually, regardless of religious background, and many of them are at the edge of society in terms of income and behavior.

“Eighty percent of the people we help are not Catholic. Seventy-five percent make less than $15,000 a year,” Nykamp said. “In a lot of communities, we are the agency of last resort.”

Some of CCWM’s programs are well-known: God’s Kitchen in Grand Rapids; the Loaves & Fishes food pantry and Christian Community Center in Muskegon; Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions; foster care and adoption services. Other programs are not so well known, such as counseling for former prisoners and sex-crime offenders, provided under government contracts.

“We do a lot of Department of Corrections work in behavioral health. We do Michigan prisoner re-entry — we work with the parolees returning out from prison — and also criminal sexual conduct, the folks who are paroled for that charge also,” Nykamp said.

Other behavioral health programs include counseling for children, adults and families for anxiety, depression, marital conflict, divorce, grief and parenting concerns; outpatient counseling for addictions; group counseling for domestic violence offenders; psychiatric medication management; and abstinence education.

Perhaps one of the strongest legacies for CCWM is its work in child welfare, which stretches back into the histories of the agencies that merged. Those programs include:

Families First, Early Impact, Family Centered, Healthy Start in Kent County and Healthy Families in Muskegon County and Family Reunification Programs.

“Together, we are really a strong, vibrant agency, but then, again, really diverse in what we do,” Nykamp said.

The three agencies — Catholic Social Services Grand Rapids, which was founded in 1946, plus Catholic Social Services Lakeshore and Catholic Human Development Outreach — began functioning under the CCWM umbrella in October 2008, some 18 months after Nykamp arrived. Legally, the agencies became one in August 2009.

“Number one, we can really have a single voice,” Nykamp said. “One of the areas that consistently was expressed was a concern by our constituency — funders, those who were fund-raising, too, and even somewhat our clients —  that they weren’t clear about who did what in what area.

“So this way we’re really strong, we’re really clear and it’s a single messaging. We are Catholic Charities. We changed our name to come into alignment with the national name, so that we would have better name recognition; it would be clearer what we do, who we are.”

The agencies combined functions such as human resources, finance and administration, Nykamp said.

“We were able to do a lot of consolidations, particularly in what I call back of the house,” she said. “You don’t have three CEOs, you have one. All three agencies were great and all three of them had strengths. We could take their strengths, give those strengths to the other agencies and be stronger overall. And it’s been successful. Our administrative rate is under 10 percent, which means much more of our money, our actual dollars, go directly into programming.”

CCWM now has an annual budget of “just under” $17 million and 300 employees, Nykamp said. According to its report on FY 2008, 63 percent of revenue is from government contracts, 7 percent from contributions and fundraising, and 5 percent from the diocese-wide annual Catholic Services Appeal supported by Catholic parishes. The rest comes from fees, United Way organizations, private contracts and miscellaneous.

“We get $750,000 from the diocese. It’s a lot of money. We love that we get that money, because we can do what we need with it. There really are no strings attached, which is very important to us. Of course, the government money has all kinds of strings and regulations to make sure you do this and not that with their money.”

She said there were few layoffs as a result of the consolidation. Last year, the loss of contracts with the state Department of Human Services forced layoffs, however.

“You have three ways of doing things. You have to come to one consolidated way that makes sense. We had three payrolls. … We had three personnel policies. We needed to consolidate those.”

Going from independent status to becoming part of a larger agency raises concerns about losing the sense of community or family that goes along with a human services organization, she said.

“Here, we began looking at the boards first and looking at how do we bring it together corporately, and then looked at the easier, money-saving items. Then staff and boards said, ‘Oh, wow, we can do this and be better at it.’ And everybody had to give to get. There was a certain amount of negotiation that happened in that process.”

Nykamp said she thinks the strength of the merged organization proved itself when the state government, tied in knots over the budget, threatened the financial security of nonprofits. “Had we not been together, cash flow wise it could have been very much a struggle for those agencies,” she said.

Nykamp was born and raised in the Flint suburb of Burton. She was the middle child of Donald Sanderlin, who was in the grocery business, retiring from Meijer Inc., and his wife, Joy, a homemaker. Both are deceased. She has an older sister in Oscoda and a younger brother in Flint.

“My mom gave us all a sense of giving back, of helping people,” Nykamp recalled. “She was really good at the non-judgmental piece of accepting people for where they are at, and I really think you need that in this work.”

Nykamp received a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and a master’s in social work at Wayne State University. She spent several years as a social worker. She led the social work department of a small hospital, then moved to Catholic Social Services in Macomb County. She then was hired as CEO of CSS back home in Flint, where poor economic conditions forced several mergers. During her 14-year tenure, her territory grew to include Genesee and Shiawassee counties, and the budget grew from $1.2 million to $5 million.

Then she learned that Hurley was seeking someone to oversee the blending of agencies in the Diocese of Grand Rapids. “I thought, OK, I might like to do that,” she said.

“I had consolidated probably three or four times, at least, with other nonprofits. We were able to either merge with them, hire their staff and absorb their contracts, or do some form or fashion of bringing them in. I had known what it was like to bring boards together, to bring staff together, and the difficulty of it.”

She said she loved working as a social worker, but like many others, also loves the challenge of leading an organization in the best way she can to ensure its ability to help.

“A lot of folks do that. They love social work, they love helping people. But I think it’s hard to, every day, help this one, and this one and this one. It takes a lot of high energy to do that, and I have a lot of respect for staff who’ve done it for a long number of years.”

Nykamp is about mid-way through a doctorate degree in leadership and nonprofit management at MSU, pursuing not only her passion but a credential she believes will bolster her desire to someday consult and teach.

She soon will begin work on her dissertation, which will involve interviews with nearly two dozen nonprofit leaders. She said she hopes her research will contribute to raising the bar for social workers who become organizational leaders.

She met her husband, Rick, on a blind date and they were married six months ago.

“I actually moved here and met someone,” said Nykamp, who was a divorced mom with two young-adult daughters when she arrived in Grand Rapids. “That was amazing to me.” Now she has four grown step-children and two step-grandchildren.

A runner and avid reader, Nykamp said her move to Grand Rapids three years ago has been life-changing. “Things just really fell into place,” she said. “I love being here. I love to be a half an hour from the beach. … And I love downtown Grand Rapids and the urbanness of it, the revitalization that has happened.”

With all the changes in her life, Nykamp said she remains devoted to helping CCWM help those who need it the most.

“We are steeped and based in the Catholic social teachings, which, if you look at them, you will realize that most religions have something similar in their tenants. We’ve been around a long time, and we are really about helping those who are the most vulnerable and giving back to the community.”

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