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Nonprofit Leaders Discuss How Strategy Translates to Meaningful Impact

Alliance is learning lab for nonprofit strategy development, deployment

While there may not be beakers overflowing with foamy substances, microscopes focused on minuscule specimen, or scientists in white lab coats, a cohort of Alliance for Children and Families members is serving as a learning lab, tasked with developing and testing practices around strategy and its deployment. Like all great experiments, the Alliance’s Strategy Counts initiative began with a hypothesis: Increasing strategy and its effective deployment will translate into more meaningful results and community impact.

Strategy Counts embarked on its second year by, once again, gathering the cohort learning group. Leaders from the pilot sites discussed their work, how it connects to the overall sector and current trends, the challenges they face, and what keeps them going.

What follows are excerpts from the event’s discussion, which was moderated by Susan Dreyfus, president and CEO of the Alliance; Guillermina Hernández-Gallegos, human services program director at The Kresge Foundation; Ruth McCambridge, editor-in-chief of the Nonprofit Quarterly; and Michael Mortell, director of Strategy Counts at the Alliance.

McCambridge: What have been your experiences in engaging staff?

Rob Myers: With 675 employees, we have had our challenges with getting the message across. But, one of the things we created, in helping us deliver the message, is a group called Process Council. That’s a group of 10 individuals who were hand selected from throughout the organization, all different levels of staff members. Many of the individuals have become the voice for our process excellence transformation. It has been very effective.

Tim Johnstone: The staff responded quite well. Management was where we had problems. We’ve done strategic plans for a number of years. We talked about how we needed to look across all of the services, and not just at what we offered, but what is offered throughout the community to help clients and client families achieve self-sufficiency. We realized quickly that we had to collaborate better internally before we could start to think about collaborating better externally.

Hernandez-Gallegos: What role does constituent voice play in helping you be strategic?

Angela Blanchard: We have to be incredibly good listeners—that is fundamental. But even more important is framing questions in a new way. I like to say that change begins with the first new question. The old questions of community development were always about lacks, gaps, needs, wants, whatever was missing and broken. At Neighborhood Centers Inc., we don’t ask, “What’s tragic about your life?” Instead, we want to know, “What are you working on? What do you have? What are you able to accomplish? What are your ultimate aspirations?”

So the dots that really need to connect are the ones that align aspirations with resources. A key role for a strategy officer in our organization is seeing where neighborhoods are going and where resources are headed, and then finding the intersection of the two. That intersection is critically important because resources never align perfectly with what needs to be done. So a key part of our strategy work is looking at the way they do align and finding ways to reshape the resources to fit the neighborhoods and neighbors.

Denise Roberts: Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Sarasota-Manatee was just involved in a very competitive process and the last question was, “What are your mission, vision, and values?” And I wrote something boring. But, then we asked the participants what they value. They said, “I like to be looked right in the eye. I want you to remember my name.” And so that’s what we put in. We shredded what I wrote. We ultimately got the project because of the extensive use of participant input at every stage.

Dreyfus: If you were in charge of all of the federal and state money that flows through your agency, what would you do differently to be more strategic?

Alan Mucatel: I would think about our social safety net in a complete picture. Our funding sources should be thinking about the comprehensive needs of all members of our communities. But even easier than that, I think some longer-term thinking about funding is a nice place to start. We are wasting dollars every time we stop the flow of money and then start it up again.

Dave Paxton: Several years ago, Ohio had a couple of horrible, tragic incidents where two foster children died largely because they fell through cracks in the system. However, the reaction of the State Legislature was to pile on all these new regulations that were expected of us. And meanwhile, they provided the same amount of fees. So they’re expecting more oversight and more outcomes for the same amount of funding.

Blanchard: We need to try to get away from the notion that neighborhoods can be transformed by a single service. You can’t build a clinic and expect it to change a neighborhood in some heroic, miraculous, transformational way—for good. Not going to happen. We’ve wasted so much money on this notion and need to move on.

McCambridge: When an organization transforms, it often closes programs and activities that do not fit its strategic vision. What have been your experiences?

Amelia Blake-Dowdle: Most recently we have been looking at profitability in terms of particular programs. We have an eating disorder program, and we got rave reviews on how well we do with the youth from the surrounding county. But, because only one of every 20 youth was eligible after restrictions around insurance companies and private-pay situation, we were just losing hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. So unfortunately, we did have to close that program.

Johnstone: We have a number of food banks that we operate as part of our emergency services. We created a program a couple years ago called Nourishing Networks, which was a grassroots food program where each community could identify the biggest need for supplemental food. While it was a really, really valuable and important program in the community, we realized that our program didn’t fit with our model because it didn’t allow us to have case management to help coach clients towards self-sufficiency, which is our mission. And so we didn’t want to just close it. We ended up spinning it off. Now a former employee is the executive director and has received the funding for the program so it could go off on its own.

Glenn Wilson: Our focus on strategy has us looking at our complete business. After careful reflection and analysis, we concluded that, because of the distance between our headquarters in Pittsburgh and site in Philadelphia, we may not be in the best position to carry out our mission. Our first and foremost thoughts were of youth we serve, our staff, and the positive impact our work has on the community. We wanted a solution that limited and reduced any trauma that may be felt by the children, families, and staff. We sought a partner with like values and like programs—one what would be willing to continue our programs and services, and continue to employ our staff.

We found that partner in Public Health Management Corporation. As a Philadelphia-based organization, it seemed to have all of the perfectly aligned political connections, which is an important aspect of running a social service organization that relies on government funding. The assets, program, services, and staff transferred to the organization April 1, 2013. It’s been a wonderful partnership and the relationship will continue. We are extremely confident that it will continue to carry on our mission, while growing the programs and services offered to the community. The transfer was the perfect solution for the people we serve, for our employees, and the community.

McCambridge: How has Strategy Counts impacted your board?

Greg Ryan: One of the things that we’ve done over the last year with Strategy Counts is to create a strategy taskforce of the board. Previously, we had a taskforce that convened only once every four years to do long-range planning. Now, that has become a regular standing taskforce that monitors how we’re doing in implementation between those four-year cycles.

Mucatel: Our board is taking ownership in a way that is somewhat unexpected. About a year after they participated in the creation of our strategic plan, they decided to create, on their own, a committee to keep all of the board members informed about where our state was going. They took full ownership of making sure the organization stays on top of current trends.

Elizabeth Carey: In these last two years we’ve taken a lot of risk, meaning we’ve engaged in a process with our board of trustees to shift into new directions and use organizational resources that we wouldn’t have used in the past. We plan to impact kids and families in some different ways and in new places and in new efforts. That takes resources and we’re trying to gather them from everywhere. It has been an invigorating experience because we’ve had board members absolutely understand and step up by saying, “Of course. Let’s go.” And then, because it means changing old ways of doing business, we’ve had others say, “Help me understand how that is what I came to do.”

McCambridge: How have your partnerships and choices related to working with other groups changed?

Tine Hansen-Turton: From the Strategy Counts initiative we have learned that we have an obligation to partner the right way and make sure that each partnership has a purpose directly related to client and community impact. It’s not a mistake and you’re not a failure if you let things go. We are now putting what I call divorce clauses into our partnership agreements, so that if it doesn’t work, there’s a way out for both parties. And now, quite frankly, organizations are coming to us because they know that we are open to walking away if it doesn’t work out.

Dreyfus: What is it that worries you and keeps you up at night?

Jim Bettendorf: I worry that I’ll wake up one day and our sole funding provider will be a managed care organization of some sort, and we won’t be ready or capable of proving our worth and value to them. At some point, the government is going to be less of a provider. Insurance or managed care entities will be the funders, and I’m not sure what they are going to ask of us. And that’s what keeps me up at night.

Ryan: Something that I worry about is being able to continue to grow the quality of staff that we can hire. We’ve really focused on trying to do a better job of providing better compensation and benefits to our staff, and that takes resources. But it’s important because you want to have the best people delivering services, making connections, fostering those relationships, and helping people build the skills that they need to be self sufficient.
Hernandez-Gallegos: What inspires you and allows you to continue to think differently?

Elizabeth Banwell: My guarantee is that the human services sector is going to continue to demand change.

But, the best news is that we are going to be able to make that shift, and we are going to be able to retain the passion and connection to the grassroots.

Mona Swanson: Similarly, the work we’ve been doing since Strategy Counts has a lot to do with hearing from our staff and making sure that they are a strong part of the process, that they understand their roles, that they are heard, and that they have all shaped how we get to where we’re going. And so that excites me because we have a lot of fantastic people.

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