By Maicharia Z. Weir Lytle, President and CEO
A Change in Leadership
In February 2015, I became the President and CEO of United South End Settlements. I was eager to take on this role after learning more about USES’s rich history and legacy of helping Bostonians strengthen their families and build their communities. Founded in 1891 as a settlement house, USES’s roots are embedded in the philosophy of neighbors helping neighbors: those who are well off should help those who are not. Settlement House workers believed it was their duty to move into struggling neighborhoods and work alongside residents to help lift those individuals and families up. Originally focused on the new immigrants who were moving into the city, the Settlement Movement has evolved over many decades to meet the needs of the community. I was hooked the moment I learned this history and the transformational impact USES has had on many generations.
I knew when I joined USES that the organization had been facing financial difficulties for many years. But I also knew of its strong reputation for high quality programming and the role it plays as an inclusive space in a diverse but increasingly segregated neighborhood. I spent the first three months meeting with community members, our participants, staff, neighbors and donors. From these interactions and engagements, I had the following observations:
Programs – Our programs (early childhood education, after school program, Children’s Art Centre, Camp Hale, family engagement, workforce readiness, & senior services) are strong, high quality and impact people across multiple generations. Our participants have meaningful experiences and relationships with USES. At the same time, however, our programs are siloed and we could improve the integration across the entire organization.
Place – USES has three properties in the South End and over 30 acres of land for Camp Hale, our overnight camp located on Squam Lake in Sandwich, New Hampshire – all debt free. After years repeated use and short-term fixes, these historic and semi historic properties are in need of major repair and upgrades. My first day at USES was during the second blizzard of 2015, so I learned early on that these properties, while they are tremendous assets, are also challenging to maintain. At a maintenance cost of up to 15% of our annual operating budget, creative solutions are necessary to provide world class facilities to and for our USES community.
People –USES’s greatest asset is our people. We have wonderful staff, a number of whom have been with the organization for more than 10 years, have participated in our programs, and know the community well. We also have a dedicated 15-members board of directors who are with us on this journey.
Embarking on a New Direction
With an investment from our board chair, Julia Johannsen, and The Boston Foundation, a team of USES staff and Board members is working with consultants from Wellspring to guide us through our strategic planning process, which we call Vision 125. We kicked off Vision 125 with a retreat at Camp Hale that engaged our Board and full management team in critical discussions that contributed to our baseline thinking. While I do not yet know what the result of this process will be, there are three things that I am certain of:
1. Change is coming. When we look at the shifting demographics of our community and the evolving landscape of philanthropy and nonprofit service delivery, it is clear that we must do things differently. Fortunately, USES is 125 years old and has a long history of adapting and thriving in each chapter. We know how to evolve and evolve well.
2. The stakes are high. We simply cannot afford to continue operating at status quo. Our business model needs to improve and we will need to make tough decisions to get USES to stronger financial health and sustainability. Again, we are fortunate to have a strong team and Board of Directors, as well as a community of supporters who are stepping forward and lending their expertise. I am confident that together we will make the right decisions.
3. We will be transparent at every stage of the process. This is a critical point in our history and it is important to me to be open and share our learning and progress with you. You need to hear from us but equally, we need to hear from you. Through mid-November, our consultants will be listening and gathering information – they are conducting interviews, holding forums with a wide range of constituents, program participants and community members, and meeting with our staff.
I hope that you will consider sharing your ideas on the following three questions with us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org:
1. What is the best single piece of advice you have for how USES should adapt its work to meet the needs of our changing community?
2. How can United South End Settlements best help people thrive?
3. How would you like to be a part of United South End Settlements in the future?
I am very excited for what is to come, as we embark on our next 125 years of service, and I look forward to sharing our progress along the way.
United South End Settlements (USES) is approaching its 125 anniversary at a critical inflection point. The demographics of the South End/Lower Roxbury are shifting and our service model must evolve to reflect both the community we serve and the landscape in which we serve it. That is why USES is engaging in a strategic planning process over the next three months to explore who we serve, what we want our impact to be, and how we can make our model financially sustainable for the next 125 years. Throughout this process, President and CEO Maicharia Weir Lytle will be sharing updates in order to communicate progress with and ask for insight from the entire USES community.