By Maicharia Z. Weir Lytle
A milestone anniversary can provide nonprofits an opportunity to reassess, and possibly refine, their strategic plan, and heeding a few caveats will help improve the likelihood of success.
In 2017, United South End Settlements (USES) celebrated its 125th Anniversary and unveiled Vision125, a five-year strategic plan, to better meet the needs of our community through high-impact programming and a more sustainable business model.
USES has long served families in need of support in Boston, dating back to 1892, but we had not addressed the demographic changes in the South End and surrounding neighborhoods in recent years and a growing need to focus on a holistic approach to supporting families.
Despite an influx of higher-income neighbors and gentrification in recent years, 36% of children in the South End live in poverty, 19% of residents over the age of 25 have not graduated high school, and 11% have less than a ninth-grade education.
Historically, USES provided programs for different audiences and our programs were siloed. Today, our target audience is children and parents/caregivers, and we have a clear goal of helping low-income families in the South End and neighboring communities access resources, become more resilient, and build a diverse and supportive network to break the cycle of poverty.
We’ve adopted an integrated approach to programming to support the whole family. For example, children can participate in our early education and out-of-school programs, including Camp Hale in New Hampshire, while parents engage in workplace readiness with one-on-one coaching. When families are fully supported they are more resilient and able to cope with life’s ups and downs.
Additionally, USES faced financial difficulties for many years due to a variety of factors, including limited resources to support the siloed programming model over the long-term and the cost of maintaining our facilities. The status quo was no longer working. While financially solvent, we realized it was critical to change the model so that USES could be financially sustainable for the next 125 years.
Prior to starting the strategic planning process, initial feedback from participants in our programs, staff, donors, and community members made it clear that USES was at a pivotal moment in its long history.
We then spent approximately six months engaged in a strategic planning process. This included reviewing existing programs and resources, soliciting feedback from various stakeholders, taking a hard look at our financials, prioritizing steps forward, and, finally, implementing the strategy.
Here are a few core elements that helped make the effort a success.
Caveat: Get the Board On Board
It’s not uncommon for nonprofit organizations to go through a strategic planning process only to put the results and research on a shelf, skipping the last step of implementation all together. At the beginning of this process we recognized getting commitment from our board of directors was critical, not only to develop the plan, but also to implement new programs and initiatives.
While nearly all board members were behind the effort from the beginning, a few were initially apprehensive of the changes we needed to make. However, board members and senior staff took the time to explain the challenges the organization faced and what would likely happen if we stood still. As a result, they became some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the new vision. This year, we welcomed four new board members to our now 18-member board, each of whom has supported the organization through meaningful volunteer work over the past several years.
Caveat: Clearly Communicate the “Why”
Throughout the process, feedback from the community helped inform our new vision and programming changes. We knew community input as well as our transparency about the process would be vital to ensure a comprehensive understanding and appreciation among our various stakeholders as to why we were engaging in a strategic planning process and making changes in the first place.
We have used multiple channels – from blog posts and social media to community meetings, emails, and our annual report – to keep our stakeholders updated. Still, there have been times when we’ve heard from community members who are unclear about some of our changes. We continue to make it a priority to communicate updates to our community.
Caveat: Look to Your Peers for Input
Throughout the strategic planning process, we looked to our peers at other organizations for guidance during the strategic planning process. Their insight and advice has been invaluable.
We’re already seeing a positive impact from new programming ideas that resulted from our strategic planning process. A new coaching model we piloted last year takes our job training programs to another level by providing consistent, one-on-one support for participants, helping them define their goals and determine the steps to achieve them.
Additionally, through our new Change Maker Dinner series, we’ve been engaging small groups of individuals in conversations about inequities facing the South End and the city. The community has always played an important role in our history and these discussions continue that tradition, while at the same time expanding USES’s networks to help effect change.
We have more initiatives underway, and additional decisions will be made in the coming months. Our history has provided a solid foundation, and our strategic planning has established a vision to help guide and ensure continued success.
Maicharia Z. Weir Lytle is president and CEO of United South End Settlements, which aims to harness the power of its diverse community to disrupt the cycle of poverty for children and their families.