The following is a conversation between Rodger DeRose, President and CEO of the Kessler Foundation, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer.
Denver: There are certain organizations that just bring with them a blue chip label. The Kessler Foundation, whether you’re speaking about their research, their programs, or their work culture would be one of those organizations. So, it is a great delight to have with us this evening, the President and CEO of the Kessler Foundation, Rodger DeRose. Good evening, Rodger, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Rodger: Thank you, Denver! Appreciate the opportunity.
Denver: Tell us about the Kessler Foundation, and the mission and goals of the organization.
Rodger: Kessler Foundation is over 30 years old now. It was formed as part of the fundraising arm of Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation back in the mid ‘80s. We owned the assets of Kessler Institute as the foundation, and we did a hospital conversion back in 2003 and 2004 and came into a sizeable endowment.
At that point in time, we had to make a decision: How are we going to spend the money? The two areas that we decided to focus on were: research in the areas of brain, spinal cord injury, stroke, and MS; and the other area was in the area of grantmaking, in terms of providing employment opportunities for people with disabilities because it’s one of the most stubborn issues that people with disabilities have… whether they’re born with the disability in life, or they have a disability in life in terms of getting into the workforce and remaining a productive member of society and the workforce.
So we decided that those would be the two focus areas. One, research in terms of addressing the functional issues that people with disabilities have in the areas of brain, spinal cord injury, stroke, and MS. The second area being: How do we help individuals with disabilities re-engage with the workforce?
Denver: Two great focus areas. Now, you continue to work closely with the Kessler Rehabilitation Institute, which is over in West Orange, New Jersey. What’s the relationship between the two of you now?
Rodger: You know, while we’re separate organizations, separated by firewalls and we have our separate boards. We sold the hospital – Kessler Institute – to Select Medical, which is based in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and they really are a dominating force across the country in terms of medical rehabilitation hospitals. But we are still very, very close. We’re as joined at the hip as possible. We have our research center, our major research centers in West Orange on the Kessler campus, and that, of course, is part of the Kessler Hospital.
So the great thing about that, Denver, is the fact that when we’re conducting research, we’re almost vertically integrated where patients– either inpatients or outpatients that are coming there for their service in terms of the rehabilitation service– they can actually migrate right into our research programs. And so when you have access to patients, you have the ability to do your research in a very effective and efficient way.
Denver: Absolutely. Truly translational.
Rodger: It is. It is truly translational. That’s the end benefit, I think, for Kessler Institute, is the benefit that they receive in terms of the new medical interventions that we are creating in these areas of brain, spinal cord injury, stroke, and MS that they can actually apply right in the hospital to the patients.
Denver: Great! Well, let’s take a couple of those that you just mentioned. You have six specialized laboratories in this research center. You mentioned a moment ago stroke rehabilitation–that research lab. How many people in this country, Rodger, have had a stroke?
Rodger: In the US, there are 800,000 new stroke victims every year, and the areas that we address, of course, are the areas of cognition. For example, the area of spatial neglect is a specialty that we have within the foundation.
Spatial neglect is: if you think of the brain as a GPS system and it losing its ability to go left if you’ve had a right brain stroke.
Spatial neglect is a very, very special need, and it’s something that we have become a leader in, not only in research but also in terms of applying it now to every stroke patient that comes through Kessler Institute.
Denver: Speak a little bit about that because that’s really interesting.
Rodger: Spatial neglect is: if you think of the brain as a GPS system and it losing its ability to go left if you’ve had a right brain stroke. In 50% of the cases of an individual who has a right brain stroke, it’s a common occurrence to have what we call “spatial neglect” where you have an absence of leftness. So, for example, Denver, if you are an individual that has spatial neglect, and you’re eating a plate of food and we asked you if you’re finished, you would have most likely eaten the right-hand side and missed the left-hand side completely. And as we turn the plate, you would then start to see the remainder of the food that you missed. Or if you’re shaving in the morning, you would shave the right-hand side of your face but miss the left-hand side. Same with a woman applying makeup.
So it’s called spatial neglect, and it’s an area that we have specialized in over the last seven years and developed a very straightforward approach in terms of how we address this issue in 10 sessions, less than 45-minutes per session; in terms of helping individuals regain leftness; in terms of where their world can be complete again, whether they’re looking at an album, a picture book of their family members and being able to see the entire family; or in the case of driving, being able to go out and drive again. So what we’re trying to do is give them complete independence where they can go right back into the community, into the family, and into the workplace. The areas of paralysis with stroke is something that we deal with every day, but spatial neglect is a very, very special need, and it’s something that we have become a leader in, not only in research, but also in terms of applying it now to every stroke patient that comes through Kessler Institute. Now, all of their nurses and practitioners are trained in this methodology.
And now what we’re doing, Denver, is rolling this out across the country and around the world so that other medical rehabilitation centers become aware of what spatial neglect is because it really has been something that has been absent from neurologists.
Denver: No question about it. I just can imagine how dangerous that must be just in terms of walking around and taking falls.
Rodger: Well, that’s it! And then they end up back in the hospital or back at Kessler Institute for another issue that they might have had from the fall.
Denver: Any other symptoms of stroke that are somewhat invisible? Or things that people don’t know about and that you’re addressing?
Rodger: Well, you know, aphasia– in terms of the ability to think and be able to speak clearly– is always an issue, and that’s something that’s addressed very clearly in almost every major stroke organization that deals with this from a rehabilitation perspective, Denver. But the area that we have really focused on in our research is this area of cognitive deficiencies that come from a stroke.
Denver: You know, one of your centers of excellence out there is your traumatic brain research center. What’s some of the work that you’re doing over there?
Rodger: In traumatic brain injury, the common areas are not only cognition-related issues, but also mobility-related issues. So the areas that you would see us focus on are in cognition– helping individuals think, learn, remember again, and address those issues of cognition deficits. And then the other areas that we’re working on are balance. One of the major issues with traumatic brain injury patients is regaining balance, and this leads to the type of issues that you mentioned with stroke patients– spatial neglect where they would fall. In this particular case, we’re working with the Department of Defense in a major area of helping individuals, civilians as well as veterans, address this issue of balance and how they regain it.
Denver: How is your research funded?
Rodger: Our research is funded by two methods, actually, Denver. We’re very fortunate that now that we have an endowment. It does give us the ability to fund many startup programs that otherwise, you wouldn’t have the pilot data to collect this important information that allows you then to go to federal agencies to win the major grants. So we fund ours through the endowment in terms of giving them startup funds– our researchers, our scientists, our own scientists–startup funds so that they can get their pilot data. And then they can use that pilot data to go after the large federal grants at NIH or the Department of Defense or the VA or other federal agencies.
We’re also very, very fortunate in New Jersey, Denver. If you talk to competition that we might deal with across the country, they would call it an unfair competitive advantage. And that is the fact that we have in New Jersey, the New Jersey Brain Injury Commission and the New Jersey Spinal Cord Injury Commission. They allow us to apply for grants and, again, collect pilot data that we can then use and leverage in terms of advancing research at the national level. And that’s what our scientists are really doing. They’re competing on the world-class stage in terms of these areas of brain injury, spinal cord injury, stroke, and MS.
Denver: And they’re winning a lot of those grants!
Rodger: They do. They are very successful at it. Yes!
Denver: Well, let’s talk about your other focus area that you mentioned at the beginning, and that is employment opportunities for the disabled. Now, from what I understand, there are about 60 million people in this country who are disabled. Of that group, how many of them are of working age? And what percentage of those are working?
Rodger: That’s a great question. It grows each year, especially as we start to see the Baby Boomers rotate out of the market force. But of that 60 million, there are about 30 million that would fall into the category of 18-64, so that they would be in the working age population. The big issue is that of that group, only about 25% are actually working, and there’s a number of reasons for that. From an employer perspective, there’s always the stigma of disability and the fact that I call the fear, uncertainty, and doubt factor in terms of: If I hire somebody with a disability, are they going to be able to perform? How are my other employees going to react? What happens if I have a legal issue and I have to, unfortunately, find a way to let that employee go? Does that lead to potential lawsuits and complications? And actually, it’s just a reverse of that in terms of the employment funding that we have done across the country in the last 13 years. We’ve invested probably around $40 million in this area where we give funding to other nonprofit organizations that are creating innovative, new ideas to create employment opportunities for people with disability.
So let me give you an example of that, Denver. You had on your show back about a year ago or so, Carol Glazer from the National Organization on Disabilities. Carol and the NOD had received funding from us to do what we call the Bridges Project, which was in Lowe’s Department Stores. So we are sort of like a venture funder, if you will, and give organizations like NOD the funding that they need to start up and do that three test market site in Lowe’s Home Improvement centers where they ended up being the consultants, if you will, on where to find people with disabilities with the Lowe’s management team, how to train individuals with disabilities against the skill sets that they were looking for in their distribution center, and then also how to train individuals in the workforce at Lowe’s on their first encounter in terms of how to work with people with disabilities. These of course are not sheltered workshops in any way. These are individuals that are working side by side with able-bodied individuals at Lowe’s Home Improvement centers where they’re earning the same pay, being held accountable for the same metrics, and getting benefits as well.
So what you see then through these demonstration projects – and there are hundreds of them throughout the United States that we have funded – is the ability to convince businesses that hiring people with disabilities adds shareholder value to them. No business is in business to hire people. They’re in business to do transactions, to make a better product or lower the cost of that product, and then they hire people. And that’s what we’re trying to do, is make sure that they understand that people with disabilities can be just as productive, just as creative, just as loyal as an able-bodied a person, and make a contribution to that organization.
Denver: So, you do the proof of concept with that funding.
Rodger: We do. And I don’t think it ends there, actually, Denver. I think that the bigger picture is not just in…if I was the CEO of a Fortune 1000 company, the way I would be looking at it is: I would be looking at it from a customer perspective: How do I create best products that serve not only the needs of able-bodied individuals, but people that have disabilities? And then I’d be looking at it in terms of talent: How do I hire diverse and inclusive workforce? And then I’d be looking at it from a production productivity point of view as: How do I put the best processes in place that are going to address the workforce issues and the production of my product in the most economical way?
And if you address those three areas, you really come to the conclusion that you’re going to be developing products, services. You’re going to be hiring people with disabilities; you’re going to be developing products for all individuals with universal design, and you’re going to be looking at productivity in a different way as well because you’re going to set up your line operations and your manufacturing operations in a completely different way. If you had people with disabilities working side by side with able-bodied people, that’s going to benefit every worker in that chain, that line of production.
…over 60% of individuals with disabilities wanted to work.
…there is an appetite, there is a need. Nobody is going to get rich living on Social Security disability insurance, that’s for sure. And so they would like to do anything that’s possible to earn an income, pay taxes, be a productive member of society…
They want to be productive members of the workforce and they want to be proud of it as well.
Denver: Absolutely. You mentioned before, we have 30 million people who are disabled; about 25% of them are in the workforce. Are people who are disabled… do they want to join the workforce or not? Have you done some studies on that?
Rodger: We have, Denver. In 2015, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, we did an updated survey, and that survey clearly indicated that—and this was with 3,000 individuals with disabilities–
Denver: Good survey.
Rodgers: –it clearly had a very high statistical confidence level, but it clearly said that over 60% of individuals with disabilities wanted to work. It was finding ways that they could actually get into the workforce and convince those that are making the hiring decisions to hire them.
So there is an appetite; there is a need. Nobody is going to get rich living on Social Security disability insurance, that’s for sure. And so they would like to do anything that’s possible to earn an income, pay taxes, be a productive member of society, and have the ability to go to an office party or a party. And the second question that comes out from a person that you meet at that party after you make your introduction with your name is “Well, what’s your profession? What do you do?” Well, the last thing you want to do is be able to say “I sit on the couch and watch TV, and I collect the Social Security disability insurance paycheck.” They want to be productive members of the workforce, and they want to be proud of it as well.
Denver: Absolutely! A real sense of self-worth around there.
Rodger: It is.
… mandates only do so much. Working from the heart and doing things out of good will only do so much. You really have to attack this issue from the perspective that it is good business sense. It’s going to add shareholder value by having an inclusive workforce.
Denver: I know how I would feel, you know what I mean? So that really brings it home. You know, I noticed it’s always evolving, but what does the current law say about disability and employment today?
Rodger: Well, there was a law that was passed under the last presidential administration called the 503 Act, and that had required that any organization that had federal contracts, they had to hire 7% of their workforce with disabilities. Now, they started out very slowly. They didn’t really enforce that, and then near the end of the last administration, they started to enforce that.
I happen to believe, from my perspective, Denver, that mandates only do so much. Working from the heart, and doing things out of good will only do so much. You really have to attack this issue from the perspective that it is good business sense. It’s going to add shareholder value by having an inclusive workforce.
So, in the same ways that marketers market products to Asian-Americans or African-Americans or Hispanic population or the disability community, you have to look at the 60 million Americans as one of the largest majority minorities in the country, and their families and their friends– which make up over 50% of the population– and you have to say “What does that mean from an economic value perspective? And how do I participate in that?” And once you do that, and you look at it from a business perspective, I think it starts to address the issue of employment in a more comprehensive way than just a mandate.
Denver: A more self-enlightened way, and it is self-enlightened. We have a hard a time finding good people, and there are a lot of them around in the disabled community that can fill many gaps within these organizations and corporations. Can an employer ask a job candidate whether they are disabled before they extend the job offer?
Rodger: No. You do not want to approach it that way. If it’s a physical disability that an individual has that you can actually see, you can ask the individual if there are any special requirements that they might have. But you’re really not supposed to dive into the disability. Now, the issue that many individuals with disabilities have is there are hidden disabilities that you and I would never see in the interview and, of course, you’re never going to go there as an interviewer. But you can ask: Are there any special requirements that you might have?
For example, there are some individuals that have back issues, and they may need a standing desk, for example, and that’s something that we provide to our employees if that’s something that they need. So those are issues that you want to tread very carefully on, and you want to make sure that you’re talking to your human resource department in terms of making sure that you’re asking the right questions.
I think that the culture in any organization that hires people with disabilities changes. It changes for the better…having a workforce that includes people with disabilities makes managers better managers…better parents…better citizens of the world. It makes them, I believe, better human beings that are going to approach issues in the workforce in a different way.
Denver: You know, we tend to look at the disabled through the lens of the limitations that they have. But boy, they can bring some incredible assets to an organization that we just tend to overlook. Give us a few of the special things that a disabled person brings to a workplace?
Rodger: I think that the culture in any organization that hires people with disabilities changes. It changes for the better. I think that having a workforce that includes people with disabilities makes managers better managers. It makes them better parents. It makes them better citizens of the world. It makes them, I believe, better human beings that are going to approach issues in the workforce in a different way. And so I think it will change the culture of that organization once you start hiring people with disabilities into the organization.
But as I was mentioning earlier, Denver, in terms of productivity, creativity, loyalty, these are the types of things that add value to any organization. When you can reduce turnover because you hired somebody with a disability that perhaps this is the first job that they’ve had, and they’re going to do everything that they can to make sure that they’re a productive member of that workforce, and they’re going to give you loyalty instead of looking for another job on the outside as long as you’re treating them fairly. That adds value to the organization because we all know what turnover costs are like in any organization.
Denver: Much more than we expect.
Denver: Absolutely. You mentioned Lowe’s before. Any other employers that stands out as exemplary in your mind?
Rodger: We have worked with funding projects with Pepsi, which is hiring people in their bottling plants and in their vending machine repair organizations. We’ve hired with OfficeMax, Office Depot. We’ve done a lot of innovative projects as well, where we’ve been funding the entrepreneurial spirit of people with disabilities in terms of if they have a special talent in the arts, for example. How do you get that to come out in terms of their personality?
And so we’ve done smaller projects. We have done projects in terms of training individuals with disabilities on how to become lab technicians in New Jersey– with the pharmaceutical industry being one of the largest in that scenario– that there’s a growing need as well. So we’re trying to address it across different technology and different sectors in industry in terms of how we can address these issues for people with disabilities and make them employable.
Denver: Let me talk a little bit about your personal journey, Rodger. You’re one of those executives that has moved from the private sector over to the nonprofit sector. You were at SC Johnson and then Arthur Andersen, and became the President of the Kessler Foundation back in 2008. What are some of the differences that you’ve noticed in leading a nonprofit organization, as opposed to leading an enterprise in the private sector?
Rodger: I would say that in business, you move very, very quickly. At SC Johnson, which was a family company, we had the ability to spin on a dime because we didn’t have to answer to shareholders, and we could make investments that other companies couldn’t necessarily do. So coming from an organization like that, coming from Arthur Andersen– which was a partnership before the Enron scandal– which, by the way, was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2003, but by that time, they had unfortunately lost all their clients.
Denver: Damage had been done.
Rodger: But the one thing, moving from a for-profit into nonprofit, is many people get a sense that there’s a lack of urgency in the nonprofit sector. I think if you can be sensitive to that and try to address those needs as you come into an organization… address the cultural issues that go with that in a nonprofit organization, you can be successful in terms of making the transition.
I think the other area is dealing with a nonprofit board versus a for-profit board. Many of the individuals that come into a nonprofit board come from a business or a legal or a financial background, so they have a mindset of operating in a for-profit segment, if you will. And when they come to a nonprofit like Kessler Foundation… or any other nonprofit organization or public charity, they have a certain mindset in terms of expectations. So you have to make that adjustment as well and work with them… make sure that they are understanding of the needs of the organization, and get them to understand how we’re moving forward with the mission of the organization.
So those are some of the complications that you typically go through in any organization from for-profit to nonprofit, but you can make the transition. The problem is, I think, for many individuals that try to leap and make it too fast, they stumble; they expect it to turn around like a for-profit organization and operate like a for-profit. And when they stumble, often times they can create hardships on the organization and start to have very, very high turnover of key asset personnel. So you want to be very careful when you’re making that cultural shift to a nonprofit organization.
… be human first; be a manager second, and still do the best thing that’s in the interest of the organization. But know that your key asset that is helping you make all of these business transactions that you’re doing on a daily business are your people.
Denver: Well, you were careful, and you’ve made it really, really well. And that’s why the Kessler Foundation is considered one of the best places to work. You’ve been on New Jersey Business list for six years in a row. You took a big jump, higher on that list this past year, and the NonProfit Times has the Kessler Foundation as the fourth best nonprofit organization to work in the United States. Tell us why people say that… and a little bit about the corporate culture at Kessler.
Rodger: I believe, Denver, that any great organization has to treat its most important asset, which are its people. They have to have competitive salary, and they have to have competitive benefits. But I think beyond that, they have to relate to the mission. It’s one thing to be working for a tobacco company. It’s another thing to be working for an organization that is actually helping to change the life of an individual that has a disability, and actually see it first hand in the work that you day in and day out. And so relating to the mission of the organization is fundamentally critical, and I think that that’s first and foremost, in addition to making sure that the playing field is level in terms of benefits and pay.
I think the other area that is so important is if you manage your organization with a real human element– where you are human first and manager second, it really shows in the culture of the organization… and how you address personnel issues, for example, that are going to live with the organization for a long period of time. Every organization has to release somebody at some point for not meeting the performance metrics. How you release that person, for example, says a lot about the organization. If you do it in a very dignified way, in a way that allows an individual to leave with grace and dignity, it says something about the organization. And that as that person leaves, that you continue to have a very meaningful discussion or relationship with the person, so that it’s a positive relationship as opposed to a negative one. That translates to how people view you in the marketplace.
That’s an example, but my point to you is: Be human first; Be a manager second, and still do the best thing that’s in the interest of the organization. But know that your key asset that is helping you make all of these business transactions that you’re doing on a daily basis are your people. And I think it comes through in how you manage and how you lead the organization.
Denver: That’s a great point, Rodger, and particularly, as you were talking about releasing someone. I’ve been with so many organizations that when they do that, they’re completely unaware of the impact that it’s going to have with everybody else who is still there. And they pretty much all say to themselves, “Oh, I see what’s going to happen when my time should ever come and how they’re going to treat me,” and they make their plans accordingly. So that’s a wonderful point.
Well, you talked a little bit about individuals, and I want to close with that because we’ve been discussing your two major programs: research and employment. But at the end of the day, what you’re doing is you’re impacting one person, one family at a time. Give us a success story of one of those people that Kessler really has played a role in touching them and changing their lives.
Rodger: I would suggest to you that there’s an individual by the name of Chris Tagatac. Chris is an individual that lives in Vermont, fell off his roof, had a spinal cord injury and was destined to be in a wheelchair. He is a business person, a finance individual, and he really wanted to address a number of issues. Those issues for him, even though he knows that at this point in time in the history of spinal cord injury, that he’s going to live a good portion of his life in a wheelchair, that he wanted to address the complications so that he could have a higher quality of life. And that being issues like bone density loss, muscles mass loss, urinary tract infection, sexual function, circulation, pressure sores, pressure ulcers that create the long-term medical complications of being in a wheelchair.
He was one of the early participants in our robotic research that we started back in 2011 as one of the very first centers in the country to move into robotics for spinal cord injured patients. He’s become an ambassador for us in terms of a spokesperson that not only talks about the fact that being in a robot–which is like exercise for you and I in terms of going to the gym each day– if you can be walking in a robot several times a week and getting that exercise and addressing these issues of bone density loss, muscle mass loss, circulation, pressure sores, urinary tract infections, et cetera – those are life-changing issues that he has to address from a functional perspective that’s going to keep him out of the hospital.
So that’s a personal story that Chris would tell you is life-changing from his perspective until we can find a cure for spinal cord injury.
Denver: Well, Rodger DeRose, the President and CEO of the Kessler Foundation, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website, some of the information that is there, and how people can get involved in helping support your organization.
Rodger: They can go to kesslerfoundation.org and learn about the foundation. They can certainly volunteer. We’re always looking for new board members that can come to the board and want to have an impact. They can reach out to me personally on our website by just emailing me, and I’d be happy to have a conversation with them and carry on the great work that Kessler Foundation does every day.
Denver: It sure does. Well, thank you very much, Rodger. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Rodger: Thank you, Denver!
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