Finding Champions: Five Key Steps to Advance Your Cause

June Simmons is President and CEO of Partners in Care Foundation (Partners). Partners is a non-profit organization in California that shapes the evolving health system by developing and spreading high-value models of community-based care and self-management


Being at the front line of designing and implementing innovative community-based care models that challenge the accepted norms of traditional health care has not been an easy journey. As the head of Partners in Care Foundation, a non-profit organization working at the axis of clinical and social care integration for the past two decades, I can attest to the difficulties inherent in being considered an “outsider” in a historically rigid field.

My colleagues and I have had to be sensitive to the fact that we are entering a related but different arena from our own – a “host-setting,” if you will—which, without an invite from people who can champion our work from the inside, makes it extremely difficult to gain a level of credibility that opens doors to the all-important financial and contracting decision makers.

Over time, I’m pleased to say that these champions have led us to build contracts and payment models with several major health care payers and providers. And while we’re still not “insiders,” we are a respected contributor to discussions about how to improve health care outcomes and lower costs.

Here are five key steps to help you do the same.

Step 1. Document the problem and show them the solution

A critical first step is to gather evidence. You’re not going to get very far with finding advocates for your cause without being able to demonstrate that the work you do makes a genuine difference. The traditional health care sector is not yet fully grounded in the mounting evidence showing the clinical and financial impact that community-based organizations have on health outcomes by addressing social risk factors and empowering people with health self-management skills. So, we have to show them.

That’s why we have put considerable effort into data gathering and outcomes documentation, most recently for our work with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid, which resulted in $16.5 million in cost savings to the health care sector from timely in-home interventions post-hospital discharge which decreased avoidable 30-day hospital readmissions. Such “proof of concept” demonstrates the feasibility of our ideas, and has helped establish social services as an essential standard of care and a crucial component of an effective health care system.

Step 2: Network—and then network some more

We have been extremely active in attending and networking at conferences of importance to leaders in our target market—the Hospital Association of Southern California and the National ACO Bundle & Readmissions Summit, for example. Similarly, we have sought out speaking opportunities at events such as the CAPG conference—the leading U.S. trade association for accountable physician organizations—and the American Organization of Nurse Executives (AONE) Conference, where we can add value and expertise to topics such as care coordination and the impact of social determinants of health. We have also actively recruited Board members from the health care sector—providers and payers—who can help us understand the messaging and motivations that drive decision making. And it doesn’t have to be just C-suiters. Look for mentors and champions across all echelons. We engage the wisdom of everyone from nurse care managers, discharge planners and medical assistants to leadership sources like The John A. Hartford Foundation and Tufts Health Plan Foundation. Each provides important insights that help inform our value propositions to the industry.

Step 3: Throw a party in their neighborhood—and invite them!

For the past 16 years, Partners has held an annual dinner at which we honor an individual who has affected pioneering change as a health care visionary. Why do we do this? There are a couple of key reasons. First, it gives us an important opportunity to network with those key decision makers and, all importantly, raise awareness of our brand. Second, by honoring someone within the health care sector who has, like us, fought hard to implement change in the system, we level the playing field and demonstrate how our values and vision – better quality, more effective care at lower cost—align with those of medical professionals.

Step 4: Align incentives

Relationships thrive when there are areas of common interest, but you can only discover that by being attentive to the other person’s interests and concerns. A raft of new evaluation and effectiveness measurements—Star ratings for Medicare Advantage plans and hospitals, Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set (HEDIS) measures for health plans and Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) scores that gauge patient experience, to name just three—have made health care organizations more publicly accountable for health outcomes. The new measurements also have a significant financial implication, with effectiveness scores tied to reimbursement rates. By listening carefully and understanding both the pain points and plus points this has created for medical professionals, community-based organizations like Partners have had an invaluable opportunity to present our case and demonstrate how our specialist knowledge can optimize health care outcomes by diverting or preventing emergency department use, hospitalization and re-hospitalization. This has created a win-win situation for everyone—not least of all the patient.

Step 5: Tell stories – real ones

As important as the data and outcomes are—and they are critical—any neuroscientist will tell you that when we tell or listen to stories, our brains are more activated. Storytelling is one of the most effective ways to plant ideas in people’s minds and get that hard-earned proof of concept data to stick. It’s also a great way to get information to spread. We recently began a project with the Los Angeles Fire Department to reduce the number of non-emergency calls to 911. Our first story—about an elderly woman who was struggling to manage her chronic health conditions because she didn’t have a bed to sleep on—was shared over 200 times on social media channels, gained us 50 new followers and was a major topic of conversation at our next progress meeting. Seek out the stories of the people you serve and spread them—at every opportunity.

Follow these five steps and you’ll be on a pathway to building relationships and finding champions. There is nothing quite so effective in building your non-profit business as finding champions to espouse the virtues of your cause to their peers. Of course, that doesn’t mean that from now on you’ll only ever hear “yes” but, as I’m apt to say, if you do hear “no,” that just means the beginning of a longer conversation.