Management

Managing Through Change: Part III - Mobilizing Advocates to Fight for Government Funding An Interview with Donald Romanik, Former Vice President for Legal and Governmental Affairs at Oak Hill

Oak Hill is a leading provider of services and residences for the severely disabled in Connecticut. It operates a main campus in Hartford with dozens of group homes around the state. A few years ago, Oak Hill faced a familiar challenge for many nonprofits—shrinking government support even as need remained high.

Oak Hill’s service population included some of the highest need people with intellectual and physical disabilities in the state, and Oak Hill was one of the only providers equipped to care for these difficult cases. Oak Hill had been covering budget shortfalls with their endowment, but realized that this couldn’t be a long term solution. They looked at ways to decrease cost, but found that it would require them to stop serving the highest need populations and even shut down some of their residential facilities. This would have been a disaster for the individuals whom they served, and their families, as no other provider was equipped to provide the kind of care at which Oak Hill excelled. Rather than bend to these pressures, Oak Hill took a different tack, and successfully mobilized the families they served to advocate for additional state funding.

Recently we spoke with Donald Romanik, former General Counsel at Oak Hill. He shared five insights on how to successfully pursue additional funding through advocacy

Insight #1 – Focusing on revenue can be the answer when cost cutting or other efficiencies aren’t an option

Donald Romanik: “Our Director at the time had the philosophy that bigger was better. It was also a time of deinstitutionalization and privatization, so the state was looking for capacity among the providers they funded. We were opening homes at an incredible rate, but supplementing the cost of the programs over the reimbursement we got with our endowment. We had a nice endowment that most of our sister organizations did not have, and that worked for a while. But eventually, the Board said the endowment was not there to subsidize chronic underfunding. We looked at cutting cost and being more efficient. But we decided it was not only about that—it was about the value we were bringing to the table. We were the provider of last resort. The state called us when no one else could take someone. So we told the state they needed to increase their rates. We were the largest, but also one of the most expensive providers, because we were unionized. Part of the issue was convincing the government we were worth the price differential.”

Insight # 2 – To secure additional funding, empower families to advocate for their loved ones

Donald Romanik: “To convince the government of our value, we hit on the idea of involving the families of our residents. This was really the first time that we got families involved. There had always been a reluctance to involve parents in advocacy because of an almost paternalistic belief— that we were there to take care of their poor disabled child. But, we realized it was a way to empower parents as advocates for their kids. Legislators are used to seeing the administrations of organizations like ours asking for money. But when someone comes and says ‘I am a proud parent of a resident at an Oak Hill facility’, they stop and look. Those are their constituents, not the usual suspects.”

Insight #3 – Choose the right families for the most effective advocacy efforts

Donald Romanik: “You need to choose the right people to be involved in advocacy. They should be constituents who not only appreciate the services and needs of their own family member but also understand the broader mission, the idea of the common good, and the role of government. Also, identify people who can articulate their views in a very personal and compelling fashion.”

Insight #4 – Give families a variety of entry points for advocacy

Donald Romanik: “We gave the families various entry points. The easiest entry point was to provide a template for a letter to their legislator—they could sign it and add a little note. The next level was to ask them to call their legislator, giving them a script they could use. Additionally, some people were politically active in local districts and were comfortable coming to rallies at the capital or testifying at public hearings.  This was all before social media. In this day and age, there are a lot more user-friendly ways to engage people. You can ask a parent to do a 30-second video where they say how great Oak Hill is while sitting next to their daughter in a group home, then post it on your website or Facebook page. Organizations need to take full advantage of the myriad communication opportunities that are available now.”

Insight #5 – Keep pushing and do it right

Donald Romanik: “Remember that you are competing. Government funding is a zero sum game with a limited pie. And, you can’t assume people know you exist and are doing good work. You have to tell legislators once, twice, three times in different ways. Bombard them with emails, texts and social media, but do it in a respectful way. For this to be successful, you also need leadership at the top and participation at every level of the organization—rank and file people, employees, parents, etc. It is time consuming and can be frustrating, but it is really critical to the mission of the organization and, more importantly, to providing services and supports to core constituencies.”

Strategy consulting in Wonderland = Asking the right questions

Tennel_Cheshire_proof
Tennel_Cheshire_proof

This past year, I worked with a nonprofit organization to develop a strategic plan, and as part of the process, we at Wellspring Consulting facilitated a full-day retreat, bringing together key Board and staff members who were committed to the organization’s future. The President of the organization was a master storyteller. His reputation for exceptional tale-telling and side-splitting punchlines was known by all in his field. During the retreat, the President recounted a story that I had heard many times before, but within this context, I was able to hear it in a new way. Now, his gem of wisdom allows me to explain what outstanding strategy consulting is.

When introducing Wellspring at the Board retreat, the President started with a passage from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. [see here] At this point in the story, Alice has entered the woods and arrives at a fork in the road. She looks around to see if there are any clues as to where the paths might lead and is suddenly startled to see the Cheshire Cat sitting on the bough of a tree.

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the CheshireCat.

"I don’t much care where…" said Alice.

"Then it doesn’t matter which way you go," said the Cat.

“And this,” declared the President of the organization, “is why we have Wellspring with us.”

As the story unfolds, we see that the Cheshire Cat’s role in guiding Alice on her adventures was to pose the right questions. From the vantage point of his perch up in the tree, the Cat could see the landscape of Wonderland and could watch Alice traverse the terrain. At each vexing crossing, the Cat would pop into the scene to push her thinking again and again. As her guide, he enabled Alice to navigate her way through Wonderland by posing the right questions to elucidate the right insights. Though seemingly disorienting at times, his astute, logical line of questioning brought Alice through a process by probing further and further, allowing her capital-T Truth to rise to the surface, until Wonderland began to make sense to her.

This is what outstanding strategy consulting is. Excellent strategic planning entails asking the right questions, which in turn requires strong skills in logic, in analytics and in “organizational therapy,” the term I use to describe the process of reflecting on what is seen from an objective outsider’s perspective.

The Cheshire Cat’s extraordinarily talent in bringing Alice through a process by posing the right questions is no surprise given Lewis Carroll’s expertise as a mathematician, logician and teacher. Carroll understood how asking simple, mindless questions lead to simple, mindless answers, whereas asking great questions can invoke great answers and, in turn, lead to great decisions.

Pushing your thinking until the vision for where you want to go becomes clear is the power of outstanding strategic consulting. At its core, strategic consulting is about asking the right questions – ones that are nuanced and thoughtful – in order to make the right decisions. Through this process of questioning, a shared understanding among organizations’ leadership unfolds, and like Alice with her eventual new-found orientation, you can get to where you want to go.

Four Ways to Address a Problem that Won’t Go Away

We are currently working with a client that provides services for victims of crimes, particularly victims of family violence such as domestic violence and child abuse.  Family violence is a persistent issue upon which it seems almost impossible to make a dent. And so, our client wanted to know how they can have greater impact.   To find possible approaches to answer this question, we looked at how other organizations strive to have impact in the face of an enduring, seemingly insurmountable, problem.

Four aces picture

We found four possible approaches employed by other organizations, which we coined, “go upstream,” “a banner to march behind, “expand the picture,” and “strength in numbers.” 

The National Audubon Society typifies what we called “go upstream.”  This organization began with the mission of protecting birds and their habitats.  But soon an important challenge became clear:  all habitats were increasingly impacted by climate change, leading to negative consequences for birds everywhere. The “go upstream” approach posits that one’s mission is served not only through intervention services aimed at solving certain issues, but also by working on the environmental factors which cause the issues to occur in the first place.  So, The National Audubon Society decided to “go upstream” from the bird territory and now has a more general focus on protecting the environment with the downstream goal of saving birds’ habitats.  What could this mean for our client?  Perhaps they address those things that contribute to family violence occurring in the first place, like poverty. Or, they work to prevent the perpetuation of the cycles of violence by helping abused children heal from their trauma, thereby reducing the likelihood that they will grow up to be re-victimized or will abuse others.

“A banner to march behind” is well exemplified by The March of Dimes.  The assumption behind this approach is that to make a greater difference, one must mobilize the public to develop awareness and a sense of outrage about the issue.  For The March of Dimes, the mission of decreasing birth defects and pre-term birth would not be accomplished with medical research alone, and thus The March took to the streets to get the public involved with fighting for this cause.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is also a good example of an organization which used “a banner” to realize impact, namely a significant reduction of alcohol-related traffic accidents.  Our client, therefore, could consider starting a movement to generate awareness and outrage to help combat family violence.

Terracyle is an example of “expand the picture,” which posits that to make more of a difference, one must engage all involved components of the problem to be part of the solution. Terracyle started out working to eliminate food waste by using it to create quality fertilizers.  The fertilizers reduced some waste, but landfills kept filling, and so TerraCycle sought to make a broader impact.  Today, Terracyle focuses on eliminating many kinds of waste by creating new product lines and mobilizing people to recycle.  For our client, expanding the picture could mean not just working with the primarily low-income, female population it currently serves, but adding services for batterers, wealthy victims, or victims who choose to stay in relationship with their abusers.

Finally, “strength in numbers” is typified by East Meets West (EMW).  The premise here is that one organization can’t make a significant difference on large issues by itself; working together with others with similar missions means that the impact is exponentially increased.  East Meets West started out providing grassroots humanitarian aid in Vietnam, but they soon realized the problems were too big for them to significantly affect on their ownEMW transitioned from offering humanitarian services to building a network of similar organizations that share back-office capacity and learn valuable skills from one another.  Our client could realize this approach through creating a network of similar organizations or employing a regional or national expansion strategy to have a greater impact.

The problem of a persistent societal struggle is one that many non-profits face. These four approaches show how some nonprofits have addressed such struggles in ways that can be applied by others.

We’re Growing... But Not Yet

Growth makes for an inspiring organizational story. Boards of Directors and staff can be mobilized around growth. But if work must be done in the near term in order to prepare for growth later, the story may be less than inspiring. People may ask, "If we can't make growth happen now, why expect it in several years?" I faced just this situation recently. One of our clients had just come off a highly successful run of completing innovative projects and raising a large amount of funding to support general operations. However, most of their major projects were nearly complete, and a campaign for unrestricted revenue was ending. These efforts seeded a huge potential for new, innovative program work and an increase in revenue, but that potential was unlikely to be realized until after several years of less outwardly visible initiatives—to plan and begin working on new educational projects, to align work internally and to improve their internal functioning. This organization therefore faced a major challenge: how to communicate with their Board about why growth wouldn't be realized right away, while still telling an inspiring story.

This nonprofit found a way to mobilize their Board members. Rather than avoiding a discussion about two years of flat budgets, the Executive Director explained exactly how the organization was preparing for growth in the future. She shared their new fundraising tactics. She described how increased coordination among staff groups would leading to higher organizational effectiveness.  She worked with her staff to develop a balanced scorecard for the organization, and committed to sharing the results regularly with the Board. And, she asked her Board to help realize the growth by forming committees around a new set of products; reaching out to bring their friends to events; and helping to find new trustees with expertise in needed areas.

As a result, Board members were galvanized and excited. Rather than being disappointed that growth would wait for several years, they were inspired to help realize future success. They understood how they could contribute, and could see clear links between the organization’s plans and the outcomes predicted.

What is the Right Organizational Structure for Us?

Org chart 24Mar14-001
Org chart 24Mar14-001

Over the years, I have worked with Chief Executives seeking to get their organization's structure right. They have grappled with questions such as: Should we have a COO to oversee operations? Do we need Regional Directors to run areas of the country? What control should the national office have over local offices? To whom should the Development Director report? One way to answer such questions is to use objective criteria. For instance, a span of control greater than 6 or 7 is a stretch. Or, work conducted by senior people should be delegated down to those more junior wherever possible.

However, objective criteria alone cannot specify an organization's structure. There is the human factor to consider -- we all come with our idiosyncrasies. Take the case of a brilliant Program Director who is expecting a promotion to the COO position, but isn't strong in management and delegation skills. Moving someone else into the COO role could cause the Program Director to leave, while the promotion might cause him to flounder. A third option of assigning an excellent Project Manager to work with the Program Director in his new role could lead to success. Consideration of human factors -- the specific capabilities of the people involved -- leads to an improved solution.

An organizational structure solution may also be temporal -- its value having a shelf life. Because a given structure tends to optimize for some factors while attenuating others, using one structure for too long may cause problems to arise. To address this, organizations may alternate between different structural approaches. For instance, in a national organization with affiliates and a central office, a period of tighter central-office control aimed at reining in quality infractions may be followed by a more laissez-faire approach from the central office to stimulate local innovation. Organizational structures may oscillate over five-to-ten-year periods, first optimizing for one thing, then another. 

Finally, it is useful to remember that a structural solution can only go so far in solving an organization's problems.  People may need to be replaced, or training may be in order. Conversely, when an organization's staff is excellent, one of several different organizational structures may work just fine.

Good Money or Bad?

I have been thinking about my work helping organizations resolve issues of revenue, funding and sustainability, a perennial issue among nonprofits. To support its mission sustainably, an organization’s impulse is often to “get funding from whoever will give it.” This reminds me of a theory developed by Clay Christensen of Harvard Business School, which asserts that good money comes from funding sources that are impatient for profit, and patient for growth, while bad money comes from sources impatient for growth, yet patient for profit. In business, profit can be an indication that a company provides value and its strategy is on target, suggesting a solid basis for growth. If a business scales before proving that its model will make money, it risks scaling a model that is not viable long-term. When a business accepts bad money, its decisions can be inordinately influenced by the funder, causing the business to scale rapidly before vetting the soundness of its model.

Nonprofits face similar pressures, and in many cases are more vulnerable to accepting funding from any willing provider. Additionally, due to many nonprofits’ shoestring budgets, they may lack the wherewithal to push back on funder influence. To avoid this pitfall, organizations would do well to distinguish between good money and bad before accepting funding. Similar to a business, it is often beneficial for a nonprofit organization to be clear about the value it provides and to whom – proof that its model works – before attempting to scale. Otherwise, the organization may not survive for the long-term.

I recently worked with an organization hoping to scale significantly in coming years.  I was impressed by this organization’s Board members who, when facing a substantial funding opportunity focused on growth, thought hard to determine if they had sufficient proof for the viability of the organization's model to be comfortable with scaling.

Given that a concrete predictor of viability is often hard to come by in the nonprofit sector, it is important that organizations accept major funding from those committed to proving the organization's strategic viability before investing in its growth. This in turn will help organizations avoid a potential boom and bust cycle created by focusing inordinately on growth.

Checklist for a Successful Leadership Transition

In our work, we've seen a number of top leaders move on to other jobs. The transition is not always smooth. If the Executive Director or CEO of your organization is planning to leave, use the following checklist to see if your organization is ready:

  • Shared identity. Does the Board and remaining senior staff share a clear and coherent understanding of the organization's identity and purpose?
  • Buy-in. Has the organization been sufficiently prepared for the transition, allowing it to develop buy-in for the leadership transition?
  • Mechanics. Are the mechanics and schedule of the transition well planned, including the timing of announcements to employees, Board, funders, and other stakeholders, and the process of hand-off from one leader to the next?
  • Bench strength. Are the staff just below the leader strong enough to carry the organization during the transition period until a new leader is solidly in place?
  • Institutional memory. Has the organization instituted a method to transfer knowledge and relationships held by the exiting leader to others in the organization?

For many organizations, it will take time to put these elements in place. To the extent possible, plan ahead for a successful leadership transition.

Do you have other points to add to this checklist? Please leave a comment. We'd love to hear your ideas.

Did Your Strategic Plan Get Dirty, or Dusty?

Recently, I was in a meeting with a strategic planning team at the Village for Families and Children in Hartford, Connecticut. Gallo Rodriguez, the President of the Organization, said "Our strategic plan should get dirty, not dusty." He was calling upon the group to work towards a strategic plan that would lead to action, and change the way the organization works. We often hear people say, "We don't want our plan to just sit on a shelf and gather dust." Rather, they want the plan to guide their work and be actively used - in other words, to "get dirty." How can you assure that your strategic plan guides your work and "gets dirty?" We've found five elements that help this come true:

  1. Articulate your most important strategic questions, and focus your strategic planning process on providing answers to these questions.
  2. Collect the facts. Analyze them to generate insights about your environment, your competitors and collaborators, your revenue opportunities, and use these insights to arrive at well-founded decisions about the future.
  3. Assemble a planning team of your organization's key decision-makers and influencers. Engage this team to discuss fact-based insights and reach decisions about the organization's future. See that team members act as representatives of the various constituents of your organization -- staff departments, Board groups, external stakeholders -- and work towards a consensus that considers all views.
  4. Listen for what will work. Gather advice. Involve people. The naysayer, the visionary, and the pragmatist all have important contributions. Great outcomes emerge through careful listening and creative development of solutions that address what has been heard. And when people feel heard they are more likely to support the plan.
  5. Establish an unambiguous plan of action and use it to guide who does what, by when. Clearly describe each action step so anyone can tell when it has been accomplished, has one person ultimately responsible (not a group), and has a due date on the calendar.

By using these five elements, you will greatly increase the chances that your strategic plan will guide the work of your organization. You will have a plan that gets dirty, not dusty.

Yes, And...

There is great power in taking what someone offers, and expanding on it. Improvisational theater only works because of this approach. Whatever one person starts is continued by the next person. When children play together, they also do this. One says, “I’ll be a fireman.” The other adds, “I’ll drive the fire truck, and we’re going to a fire.”

When working with colleagues, I have found the usefulness of saying, “yes, and.” By affirming truth in what a person is saying, and finding ways to build on that truth, achievements flow. Contrast that with the times when argument arises. The path to the best, jointly held solution is often much longer.

For efficiency, creative spark, and successful forward motion, try practicing “Yes, And…”