A Big Course From a Small Association

By / Sep 8, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

One executive at a state association has taken the lead on educating healthcare workers on a pressing national issue via a MOOC.

How do you get more attention for your association? Maybe it’s a membership drive. Maybe it’s a meeting or an ad campaign. For Jan Grimes, it’s meant building a lot of partnerships and putting together a must-attend online course. And as with so many things involving inspired leadership, it starts with Abraham Lincoln.

Since 2012 Grimes has been the executive director of the Illinois HomeCare and Hospice Council. Before that she worked for a state agency dedicated to historic preservation, and she was investigating ways to spread the word about Lincoln-related sites. When she made the jump to an association management company where she was charged to lead IHHC, she thought about doing much the same for the association. So last fall she started thinking about a MOOC—short for massive open online course, which is designed to deliver education to students with various interests and learning styles, at a flexible pace.

“It’s why we exist, right? We don’t exist to gain members, we exist to help, educate, and advocate.”

Selling the value of the association for healthcare workers in the world of hospice and palliative care wasn’t difficult for IHHCs members. But, Grimes says, “the issue for us was being heard by others.” Healthcare workers receive information from many associations, and Grimes noticed that people often focus on just one to avoid information overload. Grimes says a MOOC can help spread the word about important issues in the field, and bring the messages of multiple organizations under one umbrella.

The MOOC that Grimes has put together covers hospital readmissions—an urgent topic now that the Affordable Care Act penalizes hospitals that readmit patients within 30 days of a discharge. “In my world, we depend on referrals from hospitals at the discharge process,” Grimes says. “I saw that as an incentive [for hospitals] to learn more about the homecare world and how better collaboration with us there and a better understanding of us can help keep patients out of the hospital and further the hospital association’s goals.”

To assemble the MOOC, which has six modules, IHHC partnered with another state organization, the Illinois Hospital Association, and four national organizations: the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, the Center to Advance Palliative Care, the Beryl Institute, and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Each organization helps by providing speakers and expertise. Grimes also has the assistance of Ray Schroeder, a leading MOOC expert at the University of Illinois Springfield. But ultimately the job of coordinating all the course has fallen to Grimes.

That hasn’t been easy—“it’s a full-time job on top of a full time job,” as Grimes puts it. IHHC has the help of $10,000 from ASAE Foundation’s Innovation Grants Program, but beyond cost the challenge is making sure every stakeholder is satisfied. Some want to have the MOOC structured to accommodate continuing education credits, and technology to track that is what part of the ASAE Foundation grant helps cover. Those taking the MOOC for credit will pay a nominal fee, but during the test period—it will soft-launch next month and run through 2015—it’s not intended to be a revenue driver.

So why climb this mountain? Grimes offers two main reasons.

First is expanding the profile of the organization and promoting IHHC’s mission. “We need to talk to those outside our network,” she says. “We want to move the needle, not just in our state but nationally. For more people in the healthcare world to get out of their silo and to understand that caring for patients is a cross-continuum experience—that’s far bigger than whether it gains us a member. It’s why we exist, right? We don’t exist to gain members, we exist to help, educate, and advocate. That’s what this MOOC is doing.”

The second reason is a bit more personal. Grimes herself has hit the road to videotape experts in the field and learn more about how they’re doing their work. “For me as an association executive director, for me to get out and meet with our people right where they live, see what they do and capture their story, it’s wonderful in terms of relationships with members.”

For a small state association, it’s a creative and technologically savvy way to make a splash nationally about an important issue, taking advantage of IHHC’s own knowledge and the audience its partners can help provide. “Through working with all these associations, they can hear from their preferred information source, but it’s [based on] information that our little homecare association has done here,” Grimes says.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »