Starfish Family Services Selected as a Crain’s Detroit Business ‘Best-Managed Nonprofit”

Starfish Family Services building master record system to consolidate client data
by Sherri Welch

Data is key to helping nonprofits measure and communicate their impact and to making strategic decisions about where best to invest scarce resources. But it’s not always easy to figure out how to measure intangible things like a child’s well-being, overall development and likelihood of succeeding in college. The co-winners of the 2018 Best-Managed Nonprofit contest are doing exactly that.

This year, judges chose to lift up both a larger-budget nonprofit and a smaller nonprofit for the steps they are taking to get their arms around their data and use it in meaningful ways to better meet their missions.

Midnight Golf has launched two new data systems over the past year. One is aimed at keeping track of the growing number of high school seniors and college students it’s supporting. The other helps track its donors and their interests, while also providing a source of internship possibilities for the students it serves. Starfish Family Services is bringing data from over 20 disparate systems into a single system that will provide a more complete view of all of the programs a child or family it serves is receiving, along with indicators of how those clients are doing overall.

Both efforts are aimed at finding the best ways to help those they serve. Crain’s will honor the two organizations in late February during its annual Newsmaker of the Year lunch.


  • It’s committed $2 million, 3-5 years to develop and roll out the new system
  • Will eliminate duplication, provide holistic view of children and family success
  • Expected to produce $2.5 million in cost savings, new revenue

One of Starfish Family Services’ core strengths is its ability to serve children and families through a variety of  early childhood, children’s mental health and family support programs. But that same breadth of service has also been its Achilles’ heel. Information on the clients in each of its programs lives in different, siloed systems. That creates stress and frustration for parents who are asked to provide the same information over and over again. And it prevents Starfish staff from linking things like a young child’s behavioral issues in the classroom with stress happening at home due to a pending foreclosure, something communicated to the agency by the child’s mom through a separate Starfish program.

“We end up with 20 different data systems we’re putting information in” on who’s served and their outcomes, President and CEO Ann Kalass said. “If we’re looking at the whole child … we want to be able to see everything (they) are getting from us in early childhood, in Head Start and mental health services,” she said.

“We may have a hypothesis that a combination of programs creates better outcomes … but we can’t prove it
until the data is linked.”

Starfish has set out to tackle the complex issue by bringing data from all of the disparate systems into a single, master record system that will enable it to see all of the programs a child or family is receiving through the agency, success indicators across them and family relationships. That, in turn, will enable it to better identify causative factors and gaps in service. It’s committed $2 million and three to five years to develop and roll out the new, child and family master record system, a data warehouse that will enable it to report out data to funders and dashboards to track sets of data.

Starfish, which is operating on a $46 million budget for fiscal 2019, is funding the costs of the
new system from its reserves and unrestricted operating funds. It expects to more than recoup its investment by the time it’s fully rolled out the new system in 2022.

“We see this as an investment in something we have to do in order to achieve our mission and
our family-centric view,” Kalass said. “As a sector, to have the impact we want, we need capacity investments that make our programs work.”

First and foremost, the goal with the new, master record system is to improve services to families and to make it easier for staff to provide those services, said Kirsten Mack, director of value acceleration.
Starfish has contracted with Boulder, Colorado-based Global Data Strategy Ltd. to develop the
new child master record system. It’s spent the past year and a half establishing data governance to ensure all data entered across the nonprofit and its programs will be consistent. That includes everything from who will enter data and be able to access data to how it will be structured, Mack said. For example, it might mean designating someone’s race as “white,” for example, vs. “Caucasian,” or using numerical birth dates rather than spelling out months so that the system can read all data.

Starfish is also working to establish an organization wide data warehouse where it can report out on all of the data from the disparate systems. All of the data from the master record system gets put into the warehouse.

“That’s how we can see holistic data … and report out on it,” Mack said.
The agency has entered its first set of data, behavioral health information, into the data warehouse and is producing weekly updates that track completion of required documentation for clients or progress toward targets for clients through “dashboards” or visual representations of data that Mack and her team liken to a car’s instrument panel. The gas gauge, for example, might show progress toward an enrollment target for the number of children in an early childhood education program on a dashboard, she said. Staff are notified of weekly dashboard updates by email and can log into the system to access the latest progress reports. Data governance and the data warehouse will form the foundation for establishing the child and family master record.

“Our plan is by this time next year to have the master record system launched,” Mack said.

From that point, it’s expected to take another one to three years to be fully implemented where data is entered into the master system and pushed out to the other funder systems for reporting purposes.

Just a year and a half in to development of the new system, Starfish is already seeing cost savings as it changes how it manages data. The automation of some data management led to the elimination of one full-time position that’s expected to save about $100,000 a year, Kalass said.
More efficient data entry is also freeing staff up to spend more time working with clients, and that’s increased billable revenue, Mack said. And the weekly dashboard updates on required behavioral health documentation has increased the number of claims paid, which is starting to produce more revenue on that front. By the time the new system is fully online in 2022, cost savings and increased revenue from the more efficient system are projected to add up to $2.5 million, Mack said.

Author and Placemaker Jay Pitter to Keynote 2019 Detroit Policy Conference

Renowned author and placemaker, Jay Pitter, will keynote the 2019 Detroit Policy Conference on Thursday, Feb. 28. Pitter will share a vision for creating a more inclusive city where individual voices are heard, civic engagement is strong, and an enhanced quality of life is accessible for all Detroiters.

With a focus on mitigating the growing divide in urban centers, Pitter draws from her personal experience and spearheads projects focused on cultural heritage interpretive planning, gender-based mapping, inclusive public engagement, safe streets, and healing fraught sites.

The 2019 Conference will bring together national and local thought leaders to share their insights on the future of Detroit. By asking impactful questions focused on confronting key issues for growth and inclusion, the 2019 Conference offers attendees a glimpse of what could be Detroit’s bright future. Register for the 2019 Conference here.

Jay Pitter

Jay Pitter, MES, is an author and placemaker whose practice mitigates growing divides in urban centers. She spearheads institutional city-building projects, rooted in neighborhood knowledge, focused on: cultural heritage interpretive planning, gender-based mapping, inclusive public engagement, safe streets, and healing fraught sites.

Creating more inclusive cities is not just a professional mission for Pitter, it is personal. Her city-building values are informed by the long-term mentorship of her second-grade Irish-Canadian teacher who modeled the power of reaching across social divides when she was a child growing up in social housing.

As a result of these rich experiences and international portfolio, Pitter shapes urgent city-building conversations through media platforms such as the Agenda and Canadian Architect — as a keynote speaker for organizations like the UN Women and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — and as lecturer and knowledge producer in urban planning faculties across North America.

Recently, Pitter consulted on Edmonton’s new heritage plan; hosted a professional development luncheon for women city-builders in Detroit; shared her placemaking principles with Memphis River Parks Partnership; initiated a safe and connected streets engagement following the mass shooting in Toronto; and led (RE)IMAGINING CHEAPSIDE, a Confederate monument placemaking process in Lexington.

Chamber President: The Detroit Region Is Growing, But Not Fast Enough

The Detroit region is growing in many critical economic indicators such as GDP and private sector job growth but continues to lag behind peer regions.

That is the key message Detroit Regional Chamber President and CEO Sandy Baruah laid out during the 2018-2019 State of the Region. In his presentation, Baruah revealed key data from the annual report. The findings show that even though the unemployment rate is at its lowest in decades at 3.7 percent, the labor force participation rate is a full percentage below the national average. The Detroit region is dead last in labor force participation in comparison to its peer regions.

Some areas in which the region continues to excel include: a 2.7 percent increase in real gross domestic product year-over-year, a 1.6 percent year-over-year increase in private sector job growth, and a 6.8 percent year-over-year increase in median home value.

Areas where the region could improve include: the community well-being index, where Detroit ranks 145 out of 189 communities; an educational attainment rate at 40.3 percent, ninth among peer regions; and a poverty rate of 34.5 percent in the city of Detroit specifically, ranked last among peers.

Key takeaways:

  • Michiganders everywhere should continue to celebrate the region’s victories and growth.
  • As we welcome a new governor and Legislature in January, business leaders must urge new state lawmakers to continue Michigan’s consistent economic growth.
  • Acknowledge that while we are growing, the region’s growth trajectory is not best-in-class and a revised strategy with new approaches is needed to exceed peer regions.
  • Government, education and business leaders must work together to strengthen The Commons, or shared elements of the region’s economy (education, innovation, public infrastructure, etc.) with increased investment and resources.

Read a full recap of Harvard Business School Prof. Willy C. Shih’s keynote address at the State of the Region.

As Detroit Region Grows, Nurturing People, Emerging Industries Will Be Key

At the Detroit Regional Chamber’s fifth annual State of the Region, Prof. Willy C. Shih of Harvard Business School presented a keynote address on what regions need to do to thrive in the 21st century. Specifically, he discussed investing in skills training for employees to ensure they have the skills for the jobs of tomorrow.

After Shih’s presentation, Devin Scillian, anchor for WDIV-TV 4, joined him on stage for a discussion on the Detroit region.

What does the region need to do to succeed? Data presented in the 2018-2019 State of the Region report shows a region that has plateaued in many crucial economic indicators. Scillian asked, “How can we continue to grow and exceed our peer regions?”

Offering Skills Training and Education for Employees
Shih again emphasized the need for businesses to invest in the re-education of their employees. Scillian challenged him by asking, “Whose responsibility is it to re-educate the workforce? Does the responsibility fall completely with the employer or is the individual responsible for ensuring their own competitiveness?” New employees are not as likely to stay with one company for their entire career as in the past, so investing in these individuals can be a business risk.

Shih argued that continued education is the responsibility of everyone: the individual and the employer. The individual is tasked with the challenge of keeping their skillset current, but it is within the best interest of an employer to invest in their employees if they hope to retain them.

The Chamber’s Detroit Drives Degrees initiative is making the business case for investing in employee education. This initiative is removing barriers and providing resources for adults to continue their education.

Embrace Diverse Regional Assets
Another crucial action item Shih urged local businesses to do was pull together the region’s existing assets to brag about the quality work coming out of Detroit. Shih cited the region’s affordable housing, excellent supply-chain network, and a fierce comeback spirit as three attractive assets. He encouraged local business leaders to embrace the diversity of Detroit’s regional industries, including the region’s strong defense industry and growing health care industry, and continuously work to help them grow.

As a supporter of the 11-county region, the Chamber works on economic development initiatives that strengthen the region’s key industries, including the automotive, health care and the defense industries.

Scillian and Shih’s comments were followed by a presentation of key 2018-2019 State of the Region data by Chamber President and CEO Sandy Baruah.

Harvard’s Willy Shih: Employers Must Invest in Lifelong Learning for Regions to Survive

To kick off the Detroit Regional Chamber’s fifth annual State of the Region event, Prof. Willy C. Shih of Harvard Business School discussed why retraining America’s workforce to adapt the skills needed for modern jobs should be a key priority for local business leaders in 2019.

Education in the United States is frontloaded at the beginning of an individual’s career. After college-aged students enter the workforce, the amount of money spent (by the individual and their employer) on continued education drastically declines.

What happens to the adults who grow out of having an employable skillset, but still have another 10-15 years to contribute to the workforce? These individuals are often displaced in an economy that is talent-hungry.

Investment in continuous education is one component of what Harvard Business School calls “The Commons.” The Commons is defined as “a set of communal resources allowing businesses and people to thrive.” Education is a communal resource, and businesses must invest in their employees for them to thrive.

Shih and his students recently traveled the country to find examples of how communities are investing in displaced workers. Some examples from his study include:

  • Businesses develop short programs to retrain individuals in modern skillsets, such as apprenticeship or internship programs.
  • Universities and community colleges offer “stackable credentials”: industry-recognized credentials that can be earned over time and will be applicable in finding work over the short-term. Additional credentials can be added later, when feasible for the individual.
  • Community colleges provide resources to meet the basic needs of individuals to ensure their success in learning a new trade. Some examples include a clothing pantry for proper interview attire, a food pantry, and daycare services. Until these needs are met, individuals cannot attempt to seek employment.
  • New employers convince candidates of their potential. Sometimes candidates are eligible for work in a new position but they have been displaced for so long they no longer believe in their ability. Encouraging these individuals to live up to their full potential was one responsibility some local leaders took upon themselves in the study.

Shih concluded that it will take local educators, government leaders, and businesses working together to retrain the workforce for the jobs of today and tomorrow. The Chamber is a long-time proponent of improving education opportunities for adults and its Detroit Drives Degrees initiative works is poised to lead this charge.

Shih’s keynote presentation was followed by a moderated conversation with WDIV-TV 4 anchor Devin Scillian. Read highlights of the discussion or download the State of the Region report to see how Southeast Michigan benchmarks against peer regions.