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A pragmatic idealist

Dennis Richardson has grown Hillside into a $140 million system

Dennis Richardson likes to think of himself and his leadership team at Hillside Family of Agencies as idealistic pragmatists.
Over his 20-year tenure, Hillside has grown from a $30 million operation with 700 employees to a $140 million organization employing more than 2,200. With Richardson as president and CEO, Hillside became a system of care, taking other human service organizations under its wing as it expanded its mission to serve children.
The growth, though steady, has been carefully planned, Richardson said.
"I think that pragmatic approach has really helped the agency over the course of many years, but especially the last 20," he said. "We have folks who want to convert their ideals into practical outcomes and not just do good work but actually bring about change."
Converting ideals into outcomes has meant growth for Hillside, which expanded its programs for children and families as it took in Crestwood Children’s Center, the Family Resource Center and others.
Soon after taking over at Hillside, Richardson established a department specifically related to growing services, said Clyde Comstock, Hillside COO.
"What that did was apply a different mindset to how we go about growing, to make it more strategic and able to take a deeper dive into areas where we may not have provided services in the past," he said.
The services also have taken a community focus, with efforts to move more children out of residential settings and back into settings with their families, Richardson said. Today there are 138 children living at home with their parents who a few years ago would have needed to live in a residential setting, he noted.
Families have had close input on many changes; under Richardson, Hillside established Parents are Partners, a board of parents that looked at organizational policies.
"We listened and learned that they wanted more of a system of care and services that are more integrated rather than standalone," he said. "We worked hard over that period to build that. Consequently, Hillside became one of the largest agencies locally, and now we have a diverse array of services that we didn’t have before."
Richardson also has helped to change the public perception of Hillside.
"In 1990, we were primarily known for the Monroe campus, but today we’re serving more than 12,000 children, and 10,000 of those are in the community," he said. "We’re radically different now, and have campuses stretching across Central and Western New York."
Hillside’s evolution as an organization came not only from the input of families or guidance of idealistic board members, but also from an intensive system of data collection organized under Richardson. Hillside carefully tracks outcomes of its programs, using the data to inform decisions and make changes where needed.
Richardson has helped Hillside establish relationships with colleges and universities to assist with this research.
Hillside also has strong partners such as Wegmans Food Markets Inc., a collaborator on the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection. The program, which helps at-risk youth stay on track and graduate from high school, provides one of the organization’s closest links to the community.
"These are kids who don’t think of themselves as at-risk, but when I ask if they have heard a gunshot before or knew someone in a gang or who sold drugs, they nearly all said yes," Richardson said. "They don’t see themselves as at-risk because that’s just the norm for them. We need to demonstrate to the community that these kids are gems and can be enormously successful if we believe in them."
Richardson’s work extends outside the immediate community as well, Comstock noted.
"I think Dennis’ perception is that his job is to serve the mission of children and families not just through our mission and work in the community but also at the state level and in Washington," he said.
He is able to look outside the area and outside the human service sector for ideas and ways to better the agency, Comstock said.
"Dennis is a great thinker and always trying to look four or five corners ahead," he said. "He looks for the approaches that might not have anything to do with our services but are things we need to do in order to be better. So he pays attention to the hospital sector and the higher education sector to see what they’re working on and inventing, and how that might play a role in making us a better agency."
10/12/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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