David Ervin, CEO of The Resource Exchange since 2005, grew up in a small community north of Philadelphia and began playing soccer at an early age. Although he wanted to go into forestry as a kid, the requisite biology courses turned out not to be his strong suit. After taking a psychology class in high school — which was “fabulous” —he gravitated in that direction.
After earning an undergraduate degree in clinical psychology from Penn State and pursuing graduate studies there, however, he eventually switched, earning a master’s in organizational development from Robert Morris University in Chicago.
Ervin referees competitive soccer leagues in Colorado and does whatever he can to get outdoors and spend time with his wife Sheila and their two sons, skiing, snowboarding, hiking and road cycling.
What I’ve learned from people who have developmental disabilities is the true value of human dignity and the gift of respect to one another.”
How has your career prepared you for your current role?
After Penn State, I moved to the D.C. area and got a job as a residential counselor in a group home of adults with autism. I was instantly hooked. I met and worked with extraordinary people — and it changed my life in a fundamental way. After six months, unfortunately, I was promoted to program coordinator, and I was managing staff, at 22. I was terrible at it. Three months later, I was given a choice: resign or be fired. I resigned. It was a wake-up call. …
Then I was given a tremendous opportunity at Georgetown University as assistant psychologist to work to close down the Forest Haven [D.C.’s institution for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities], providing technical assistance and consultation. (And we closed it in ’91.) So much of what we do here is informed by the lessons of history. And our history is terrible. You have to pause and listen and learn. What I’ve learned from people who have developmental disabilities is the true value of human dignity and the gift of respect to one another. It was transformational. It was a seminal event for me. I worked on that project for three years. Then I worked in D.C. for an agency that offered services to many of the people who had moved out of Forest Haven.
In 1994, I moved to uptown Chicago and was director of developmental disabilities at a residential facility. From ’97 to 2005, I was vice president of Oak Leyden Developmental Services. It was a small organization, and the executive director brought me in to grow the number of people we served, grow impact and grow reputation. That’s a clean canvas — a tabula rasa. It was wonderful. I’d learned an important lesson — you have to listen and understand. We grew like a weed, offering cool services in the Chicagoland area.
It was the piece de resistance — the lovely juxtaposition of everything I knew about humans and business. The ability to draw on those pure business constructs is useful in a running a business. It allows me to reject the notion that a nonprofit has to bleed to lead. No, we don’t. We need to build a thriving, strong, successful business. I learned a ton and took it from a $2.5 million organization to $9 million.
In part, indeed, I’m a one-trick pony, since graduating from Penn State — I’ve been working with people with developmental disabilities. It’s the only thing I know. It’s really an endless litany of opportunities, not the least of which is this journey brought me to The Resource Exchange — in many fundamental ways, a crown of this journey.
How has the Resource Exchange’s relationship evolved with its service providers?
I think quite well. When I got here, the organization was in trouble and had lost many of the service relationships with service providers in the community. Our relationship is with the people we serve and their families. The organization had not asked for its customers’ opinions — and we learn more from authentic answers than flowery ones.
I spent the first year asking lots of questions and saying “I’m sorry” lots of times. If you want an organization to improve, you have to be willing to ask those questions. So we created focus groups and talked to stakeholders, businesses, schools, families. These focus groups — it was hard stuff to read. It was raw: “You’ve abandoned us.”
What a transformation. [We’ve increased] the number of people we serve from 1,400 to 3,000. I have the best talent in the industry. We are a talent magnet. We have a turnover rate of 10 to 15 percent — in an industry that runs between 60 and 70 percent. The basis for our work is relationship with families, and they won’t have time to develop trust if they have [numerous caseworkers].
Coming to work is fun. We have such extraordinary people working here from whom I learn every day — and you add to that the families we work with.
Why has fundraising become a bigger focus for the agency?
Before 2006, the organization had never done formal fundraising. And as part of my discussion with the board before I arrived, I said, “We need to tell our story. We know people with developmental disabilities in our neighborhood, coworkers, and [they] go to school with our kids. We do good work here. So why aren’t we talking about this?” We wanted to create a system by which we could engage families and philanthropic investors in our work. We don’t look at fundraising as a transaction — it’s all about relationships.
In 2005, our state and federal funding was 99.4 percent of our budget. Now it’s 83 percent, intentionally. We want to ultimately rely no more than 65 percent on state and federal funds because that source may not always be sustainable. Colorado has a lot of competing priorities and not a lot of money.
Describe your efforts to keep state legislators informed of the needs of people with developmental disabilities.
Part of the expression of our mission — to build independence for people with developmental disabilities — is engaging quite a bit at a public policy level. We’re simply not allowed to be so parochial as to limit ourselves to only the priorities of this organization. And to the board’s great good credit they have embraced a world view which includes more than just the Resource Exchange. It’s a wonderful environment in which to work.
So the information we try to bring to legislative work is guided by that mission. This legislative session has started rapidly. Rep. Lois Landgraf, from Fountain, is co-sponsoring a bill that would end the Colorado wait list, for people [in need of] developmental disability services, by 2020.
We worked all summer long on this bill across the state with Republicans, Democrats and building broader stakeholder coalitions. The bravado that it requires is tremendous. Our role is to build independence. One of the ways we do that is to break down access barriers — and this is right at the heart of it. We spend a lot of time talking to elected members of the Colorado General Assembly. These sorts of issues as they crop up, we’ve variously been involved in redefining and developing disability [policy] in Colorado.
Prior to August, Colorado had the most restrictive definition in the country. The impact is, the definition was so narrow that people who would benefit from services, and be eligible for services in any other state … can’t even get services. I’ve been working since 2007 to broaden that definition. On August 1, that definition expanded, and we are now essentially following the federal definition. So we expect to see as many as threefold the number of people in Colorado who are eligible.
I don’t think we can stick our heads in the sand and pretend people don’t need services. We take on these sorts of issues.
Our customers are really spectacular at saying, “These are the issues important to us.”
And 80 percent of working-age people with developmental disabilities are unemployed. People with disabilities don’t want handouts. They want opportunities. We have to fix that. We can’t sit still and do nothing. We at TRE have to do something. You can’t just kvetch and moan. I don’t care how long it takes. We have to change that trajectory. It’s our obligation to our constituents and our community. They are fiercely loyal. People with developmental disabilities look at a minimum-wage job and see opportunity — and they go to work every day, regardless of how they feel.
It’s basic human nature. They want to be part of something. And they never talk about the amount of the paycheck. They talk about earning their paycheck and contributing. They know they’re making a difference in the community. We have a wonderful but untapped asset in our community.