It’s been a long path from social worker to leading one of Hawaii’s largest nonprofits, but it seems Karen Tan is just getting started.
This fall, she and her team are developing a strategic plan to guide CFS over the next few years, and she continues to champion innovation at the 120-year-old organization. Her endgame: Strengthen families and foster the healthy development of children.
Q: You spent many years as a social worker. Does that inform your job as CEO?
Tan: It helps me understand the work our people do so I can empower them to do their best for those we serve.
Q: You have brought some national best-practices to Hawaii. Can you provide examples?
Tan: We always look across the nation to see what’s working for families and communities. One model we brought in is called Transition to Success, which addresses poverty and looks at how to help families out of poverty by helping them visualize their hopes and dreams and giving them very clear steps to get there.
We are partnering across the nation with others who are using this model and we hope it will be a model of dealing with poverty across the country. In Hawai‘i, we talk about homelessness, but a lot of homelessness is really a symptom of poverty. Certainly there are mentally ill homeless people, but poverty plays a major role for families who are homeless.
Q: How do you adapt those models to Hawaii?
Tan: When we see a successful model, we try to pilot it to make sure it’s culturally appropriate. Sometimes we bring in cultural experts to review the models and also ask participants to weigh in. We’re piloting the Transition to Success model on Maui and Molokai. We found there has been a statistically significant improvement for families participating in the program, so we are getting ready to launch it statewide.
Q: In what ways is CFS data driven?
Tan: This is really important to us. A national imperative called North Star looked at the human service sector and identifies data as a key principle. Fortunately,
we’ve been doing that for years. We bought an outcome tool called Results-Based Accountability. It’s a user-friendly way for us to take measurements and answer the question: Is anyone better off because they received services from us? We have around 50 programs across the state, servicing thousands of individuals. We have scorecards for each program.
Data plays a big role in our success. A while back, I met with a big company. They were polite, but it wasn’t until I pulled out the scorecards and showed the data on how our programs impact our community that they leaned in and said: How can we help? We want to do more.
Q: How do you leverage partnerships to tackle tough social problems?
Tan: The competition can be fierce because a lot of us are competing for the same state contracts. But I like to go into competition as partnerships whenever it makes sense. If a project calls for helping in an area where we don’t have expertise, we reach out at the CEO level. We ask: How do we support each other to provide the best outcome? We are stronger together. If an organization is better in an area than we are, we say, “You go for it because the goal is helping the community.”
Q: How do you foster fresh thinking at CFS?
Tan: This year, we turn 120. We are constantly looking at ways to be strategic for the next 120 years – like an innovations lab. We are working on a room with special walls that you can write on and brainstorm ways to tackle some very hard community problems. I always tell my folks: Mistakes are OK, as long as you learn from them. Don’t get stagnant. Always strive for better things.
Q: It takes a certain cockiness to be a CEO. How do you build that?
Tan: I spent over a decade in leadership positions within CFS. But when nonprofits look for a CEO, they typically conduct a national search to make sure they hire the best person. So there were no certainties for me.
When I started this process, I met with different women leaders in our community. I wanted to hear their stories and get to know them better. I’m glad I did that because it is good to know there are others in the same boat as me.
There are many resources. One is Amy Cuddy, who explains how our presence and body language is instrumental in gaining and projecting confidence. How you carry yourself can change how you feel inside. I had my three daughters watch Cuddy’s TED talk. Sometimes, before a high-powered meeting, you have to stand straight, put your hands on your waist and look like Supergirl.
Q: What other wisdom do you pass onto your three teenage daughters?
Tan: Believe in yourself. Sometimes you have to fake it to convince yourself you can do it. As women we sometimes shy away or say to ourselves: “I don’t deserve this, there is someone better.” But we might be the perfect person and all we have to do is build confidence.
I asked my girls: What do you want in life? The sky is the limit, just stay laser-focused on those objectives. Don’t have it just be a dream.
The interview was edited for conciseness and continuity.