Most nonprofit organizations start with someone's vision, with their passion to make a difference. Hence, in the early, youthful days of the organization, some board members -- the founders, the visionaries -- will be actively engaged in running the program.
But programs, like children, have lives of their own. Clients change, their needs change, societal rules and expectations change. So, too, must programs and leadership if they are to remain effective and vital.
Thus says the board chair of an organization that serves the toughest of tough clients, those who have more than three strikes against them: substance abuse, extreme poverty, domestic violence, criminal records, homelessness, hunger, no skills, no diplomas or degrees, no support system and no self-confidence, or, as the executive director says, "poorer than homeless."
During the course of years, the original program of the agency, developed by a visionary board member, had been tweaked to provide not just service, but services, to students.
It had grown up. But like a gawky teenager, it lacked coordination.
Knowing when to move
While success rates were strong, it became clear that something was amiss. Teachers were developing their own modules -- lessons outside the official curriculum -- lessons that varied from teacher to teacher, lessons that responded to specific needs the staff perceived in the ever-changing student body but were not met by the core curriculum.
"Our teachers were creating units of their own to meet the needs of their students," the executive director says. "We wanted all students to have the same experience with the curriculum. We needed to create a new curriculum or find one."
"I was very concerned about slippage away from consistency," the board chair recalls.
Despite inconsistencies in program delivery, the success rate held steady over the years, the executive director says, because "our teachers are so good. What they produced was so good, and we kept reconfiguring the program."
Clearly, the visionary's program had to grow up, too. Luckily, the visionary recognized this. Ego was put aside to facilitate change.
Making the move
Built into the program -- and an essential element in change -- was evaluation. "We evaluate everything," the executive director says. So detailed is the evaluation that outcomes are reported by finely sliced demographics and students are tracked for years. This level of knowledge about the effect of its programs enabled the agency to define its students' needs very precisely and offer both classes and support services upon which its students draw for a lifetime.
Chief among those needs was a consistent curriculum geared to the services required by its current student body.
The decision was made to start fresh, with a new core curriculum to which modules could be added. The search began on Google and ended with a curriculum agreed upon by all levels of the organization. The best of the modules developed by the agency's own teachers were incorporated into the new curriculum.
A grant funded training and materials for the curriculum, as well as a consultant to help teachers develop or refine the additional modules needed. Teachers were trained in both the curriculum and teaching techniques.
The agency's mission statement is framed and hung in every office, the executive director says. Every staff member has access to the client database so word of an achievement -- or failure -- can be passed on immediately. Senior staff reviews outcomes reports weekly; all staff review them monthly. Changes are made, or piloted, when needs in keeping with the mission statement are perceived.
It is, the board chair stresses, the agency's effectiveness that is measured. Students may have all sorts of problems but it is the job of the agency to deal with the problems. "The students are who they are. We do the best we can with each one," he says.
In-depth analysis of long-term program outcomes continues. Throughout, the board was informed about and approved changes.
And the board itself changed as well.
The board chair realized that the board needed to be "better, stronger, smarter" and have "stronger engagement, ask good questions."
To that end, he eliminated oral reports from committees. Written reports were sent out prior to board meetings. If board members had questions, they could ask them but the shift was to substantive discussions.
It became "generative," a concept the board chair attributes to Richard Chait of Harvard University. The board began to focus on the most critical questions facing the organization, such as "How can we have greater impact?" Or "What did we do in the last year that caused the greatest advancement toward our goals?"
The staff presents topics for discussion and the board "is much more involved, not just in looking at outcomes but also in understanding what the program is," the executive director said.
Revamping of both the board and the curriculum was made possible by a funder who supported capacity building and asked the organization in which areas funding could have the greatest impact. Three areas -- curriculum, board development and technology -- were identified and incorporated into the strategic plan.
The board chair values another aspect of funding: the demand for hard information about programs. "One of the best ways to get a handle on a program [as a board member] is the foundation proposals. If you want to read in 10 pages what the program is all about, you will find that in a grant proposal," he says. A funder's response to a proposal also provides useful information, he says. If it's positive, you know you are on the right track. If it's negative, the reason for the denial can help board and staff evaluate the program.