How is a 150-year Old Social Ministry Organization Innovative?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Jodi Harpstead and Charlotte Haberaecker

Just ask Jodi Harpstead, Chief Executive Officer of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS). Jodi says that the question she is most frequently asked during an interview, "How can an organization celebrating its 150th anniversary be relevant and innovative in 2015?" is also her favorite question to answer. For Jodi and LSS, it is part of their DNA and what makes them the strong organization they are today.

Prior to joining LSS, Jodi spent 23 years with Medtronic, a pioneering biomedical engineering company headquartered in Minnesota. In 2004, she felt called to serve in a different way. She joined LSS in 2004, and was named CEO in 2011. Jodi believes there are many similarities between for-profit and nonprofit organizations. "People are people, organizations are organizations and when people are inspired, they can produce amazing results." This perspective has helped position LSS for today, and most importantly, help prepare it for the next 150 years. At the heart of their success are the people they serve and the people of LSS.

"We work with compassion and competence. First we need the compassion to serve the neighbor, and to be with them through whatever they are struggling or walking through," said Jodi. "Then we need to have the competence to make a difference, so that our clients' lives are enhanced by walking with us in a way that makes a difference."

Their broad portfolio of community services touch people of all ages with services that include housing and crisis shelters, mental health counseling, adoption, financial counseling, senior nutrition, foster care and services for persons with disabilities. LSS is one of the largest nonprofit social service organizations in Minnesota, serving 1 in 65 people across the state's 87 counties. They employ 2,300 employees and engage 10,000 volunteers in their community efforts. With operations in more than 300 communities, the organization's annual budget of $122 million is funded from public, private and charitable sources. Throughout their 150-year history, LSS Minnesota has continued to find innovative ways to serve their clients and stay relevant in a changing landscape.

At Medtronic, Jodi had introduced a new culture for leaders, introducing 'breakthrough' thinking and has successfully implemented the same approach at LSS. Each year, the ministry's 90 senior leaders from across the state join together to share their 'breakthrough' goals. According to Jodi, these are big goals — things that they don't know how to do. By publicly declaring their intent and then making their breakthroughs a priority, the organization is able to meet these goals through innovative thinking put to action. They look for new ways to get things done, to serve their clients and truly make a difference in their lives.

One of their 'breakthrough' goals is to focus on the issue of homeless teens. As part of a statewide design team, LSS Minnesota now provides a number of alternative housing settings for youth and a program that serves their needs for the long term. In the city of Duluth, for example, they've made a bold statement, "We are pouring everything we know how to do into Duluth, and we think we might even have a shot at ending homelessness for youth in Duluth." Bob Sherman, Capital Campaign Director for the Duluth office, is leading efforts to raise more than $10 million for a new Center for Changing Lives. The center will serve as a hub for their services for homes and at-risk youth and will include a walk-in teen clinic, permanent supportive housing and transitional housing.

LSS is also very engaged in providing disability services, and active with the LSA Disability Network, a nationwide association of Lutheran social ministry organizations, faith-based organizations and Lutheran professionals supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and related conditions. LSS led the development of Altair, an accountable care organization (ACO) that is comprised of six of Minnesota's leading social service providers, including fellow LSA-DN member Mount Olivet Rolling Acres, and a health care practice specializing in care to individuals with disabilities. Altair serves as the mechanism to manage collaboration across organizations and services and create quality measurement and data sharing tools to track outcomes and share best practices. Altair is believed to be the first ACO of its kind that endeavors to support people with disabilities in a holistic, person-centered manner and concurrently attempts to more efficiently control costs, while not being run by a healthcare system or health plan.

Jodi believes innovation comes from many sources, but most importantly from creating connections – connecting people with one another and with services. One of the most important connections for her team is the LSA network. "Through the LSA network, we get to connect with more than 300 organizations across the United States, and they tell us what their successes have been and what their problems have been. It's an enormous treasure of ideas."

Jodi was recently elected to the Board of Directors of LSA, and will play an important role in guiding the organization in our mission. [She also shares her time and knowledge as a member of the Board of Regents for Augsburg College in Minneapolis.]

LSA members from across the country will have the opportunity to connect with Jodi and her colleagues when the LSA Annual Conference comes to Minnesota, April 25-28, 2016. With more than 30 LSA members in Minnesota, there are many reasons to celebrate Lutheran social ministry and attend our largest gathering of the year.

Jodi shared her top 10 reasons to attend the Minnesota conference (hot dish anyone?) - check out the video here. While we're looking forward to "Minnesota nice" hospitality, tax-free shopping at the Mall of America and Minnesota Twins baseball, let's remember Jodi's number one reason to attend the conference: "LSA is sitting on top of one of the most powerful networks in the U.S. and it is our responsibility to figure out what God wants us to do with the abundance we've been given in service to our neighbors."

Learn more about the 2016 Annual Conference, April 25 – 28 in Minneapolis, MN and help share in shaping the future of Lutheran social ministry.

Learn more about Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota at

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