Who The Folk?! Ruth Hampton Olkon

Ruth Hampton Olkon spent six years on the program side at Jewish Family Service of St. Paul, but now she’s back as the organization’s new CEO. What’s it like coming back when the buck stops with her? We talk about what it’s like to come back to the agency after eight years away, what she picked up while she was gone, and where she’s hoping to take JFS in the years ahead, on this week’s Who The Folk?! Podcast.

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What’s it been like sort of getting your feet wet at an agency like JFS?

It’s been wonderful. This is a beautiful, warm, welcoming community. So I’ve spent a lot of time learning and talking with internal and external partners, all of our staff, our board, our community partners, so it’s been wonderful.

What’s the learning curve like coming into an agency like JFS?

Steep, but doable.

This is a return to JFS for you; when were you first here?

I’m coming home so to speak. I served from 2005-2011 as the assistant director responsible for all the programs.

Where were you from 2011 to now?

Yeah, I worked at Alina Health. I also have a background in public health. So I was a community health improvement manager for that system, doing large-scale community health improvement projects statewide.

How do you take some of those experiences from the healthcare organization side and bring it back to the social service side?

Yeah. In a couple of different ways. I think are the skills are transferable. The experiences are transferable. It’s about building risk systems that are responsive, to client needs or patient needs or community needs. So how do you build responsive systems in partnership so a collaboration was a through-line in both settings? What I was very fortunate to be able to do was to spend a lot of time in evaluation in setting up ways to understand the impact of work, and had an opportunity to see how very large systems work, and how to take and how to build a project and then take it to scale. Another piece for me that was important was around communication. Health systems do a lot around different ways of communication. So those were skills that I’m bringing back. I was able to provide funding rather than seek funding. So now I have this understanding about what a funder looks for a proposal, which is really useful when one is pursuing funding.

How helpful is it having the experience that you have as a programmer in your time here, and now coming back with sort of all of that other knowledge that you bring back from Alina?

The services we do, that is our point. That is why Jewish Family Service is here, to provide support to community members. And I understand that work, I understand what it takes, I understand it from the staff perspective. I’ve done direct service. So I have that inherent understanding of that experience. So I know the product, And I’ve had the experience then of understanding how to build systems that support the delivery of a service. So I think that’s those are the two threads that I’m bringing together as a leader here.

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