Interview by Sarah Shumick
Kari Jones serves as president & CEO of the Down Syndrome Association of Central Ohio (DSACO), which is celebrating their 35th year of helping families and individuals with Down syndrome in and around Columbus. Jones is, by her own admission, “totally obsessed” with helping people find ways to live their best lives. This passion, combined with her innovative drive and knack for idea generation, serve DSACO and the 5,000+ families they support quite well. Take, for example, their recent partnership with Quantum Health which is saving families thousands of dollars and valuable time. And speaking of saving money: when Jones isn’t working to help families through her nonprofit organization, you might find her posting about her latest #aldifinds.
Give us a brief overview of your organization: This year we are celebrating 35 years since the Down Syndrome Association of Central Ohio was established. It grew from 4 families in 1984 to now serving over 5,000 people throughout 23 counties in Central and Southern Ohio. Our mission is to support families, promote community involvement, and encourage a lifetime of opportunities for people with Down syndrome. In addition to serving individuals with Down syndrome, we also support their families and community professionals who work with the intellectual and developmental disability population.
How you are innovating in the nonprofit space? We work really hard to serve families and meet their needs, whether that’s getting them involved in one of DSACO’s programs or referring them to another organization that can best meet a particular need. When we find gaps in the system, we are willing to do whatever it takes to figure out how to solve it. Right now we are gearing up to launch a research study with Nationwide Children’s Hospital in which, if all goes well, we will be increasing health outcomes for kids with Down syndrome around the country. We don’t like settling with “this is how it’s always been done.”
How is your organization making an impact in Columbus? We place a high value on collaboration, which has really helped DSACO up its impact in recent years. We have expanded to serve more rural communities by duplicating high value programs we historically had only done here in Columbus. We are also making a big push to do a better job at serving minority families within our community, which is one huge area we know we can do better.
What makes your organization thrive? We are constantly evolving as the needs and environment changes for those we serve. We are also willing to take risks. I tell my team that the worst thing they can do is not try something a new way. Sometimes things don’t shape up like we hoped, but when we nail something it’s worth it.
As a leader, how do you come up with innovative ideas, and what helps put those ideas into action? I like to “zoom out” and learn about systems as a whole. The deeper I go, the deeper my understanding and the more creative I tend to dream up solutions to existing problems our stakeholders face. I often come to team meetings saying “I have an idea!” Luckily my team has continued to humor me with exploring whether or not whatever the idea is would be viable. Also, my team is full of creativity and I truly believe collaboration is the only way to put innovative ideas into action.
Here’s an example. One in two babies born with Down syndrome is also born with heart defects. That means that many of our families are coming to us even MORE overwhelmed and more worried about the complexities with their child’s health than the actual Down syndrome diagnosis. Between hospital bills and navigating the complexities of healthcare, our families are drained. Through collaboration with Quantum Health, DSACO now offers a HealthCare Coordination Scholarship for families to help them relieve those stressors and just get back to parenting. Quantum Health had never partnered with a nonprofit like this before, but the results have been unbelievable: Over the past year 30 families have saved over $150,000 in healthcare expenses (and who even knows how much time!) thanks to this program. The return on investment DSACO makes is pennies on the dollar and the feedback from families has been priceless.
Give us a snapshot of your career path—what is your background, and what led you to work in the nonprofit sector? Since high school I have always enjoyed volunteering with various causes. Until late into college I thought I would be going into the communications arena, but at a leadership retreat for a disability-focused student group I had an epiphany. As a consequence, my first job out of college was in the nonprofit sector and I haven’t looked back since.
What is the one thing you are most passionate about? I am totally obsessed with helping people. I know that, working for a nonprofit, that probably doesn’t come as a surprise, but I seriously get a high from figuring out how to help others live their best lives.
Who inspires you? The people around me inspire me daily. My team at DSACO, my family, my friends—and especially the people we serve. I see the hard work they put in when they think no one’s looking, the kindness they impart, and all of the little ways they show others they care. If I had to say just one person who inspires me, it would be my dad.
How do you stay motivated? What drives you to take things to the next level? I am highly motivated by watching the positive impact of things we’re building at DSACO. When I hear a family say, “I truly do not know what we would do without DSACO,” it fills me up. I’m constantly tinkering with ideas to improve what we’re doing so we can bring even more value to families we currently serve, and especially the families we don’t even know yet.
What struggles or adversities have you had to overcome to get to where you are today? I consider myself very lucky. I have had so many amazing mentors who have coached me through the challenges I’ve faced over the years, which has truly made all the difference. Early in my career I was in a position of leadership at a very young age and managing 200+ professionals, who were sometimes three times older than me. I had to work really hard to earn their trust, prove I was capable of leading them, and often had to own that I didn’t have all of the answers.
Why do you think people should care about innovative nonprofits? Nonprofits are almost always working with very limited resources as it is, but innovating means we’re creatively figuring out how to take it to the next level. Innovative nonprofits are doing things that either others don’t, won’t, or can’t do in the service of others. We live in a community that already values nonprofits, so I would argue it’s an even easier sell to others to care about innovative ones.
As a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up? I wanted to be a news anchor when I was a teenager.
What might others be surprised to know about you? I am *kind of* obsessed with ALDI. Like, I have my own Instagram handle—purely for my own entertainment—in which I post about my #aldifinds. @jonesing_for_aldi if you want to check it out!
How can others in the Columbus community get involved with your organization? We host a number of different programs and events and can always use the hands. We honestly couldn’t do what we do without community members stepping up to support us. DSACO volunteers and donors clocked a combined total of over 5,000 hours, donated over $200,000 in goods and services, and gave generously—all of which are critical in order for us to do the things we do. Check out our website: dsaco.net and learn more about how to get involved with us!
If someone were to ask you what the “pulse” of Columbus is, what would you tell them? Columbus pulses collaborative energy. I truly believe that collaboration leads to innovation, which strengthens the whole community—not just the people whom nonprofits aim to serve.