In 1997, the Fortune Society embarked on the most ambitious project in its 30-year history. The project would either destroy the organization or transform it. Established to serve and advocate for men and women involved with the criminal justice system, Fortune Society decided to open a housing facility for recently released prisoners returning to New York City.
The fact that the agency had never owned property, managed a housing program, had no money and wasn't welcome in the community deterred neither the board nor the executive director. Amazingly, five years later "The Castle" opened, in April 2002, on schedule, within budget and with the support of its community.
The Fortune Academy (aka the Castle) is a success story and is nationally recognized as an innovative model for housing ex-prisoners.
In 1996, Fortune Society kicked off a multi-year strategic planning process to determine its future direction. The agency wanted to establish its priorities for the next five years. The board, staff, volunteers and clients were all involved.
Two organizational psychologists were hired to facilitate the first phase of the process. They recommended that the group start by recognizing that the agency was changing and that thorny issues like management, leadership and trust should be addressed.
Fortune Society was no longer small and wanted to continue to expand, and a hands-on executive director could no longer manage the agency alone. A strong management team would be necessary to realize any future vision. Lengthy and emotional meetings went on for months, even after funding for the hired facilitators ran out. Eventually the issues were resolved and another consulting firm, Community Resource Exchange, was hired to help finalize the five-year plan, which included the housing project.
It was well known that finding safe, stable housing was a problem for recently released ex-offenders. David Rothenberg, Fortune Society's founder, described how men just out of prison would sleep on his couch in the early days. In discussions about Fortune Society's priorities, clients and staff continued to reiterate that housing was an unmet need. When the process began, JoAnne Page, Fortune's Executive Director, said she knew that a new housing program would be one of Fortune's goals.
The magnitude of the housing and capital project was staggering. Yet the board was willing to take the leap. Why did the board take on such a massive capital project with so much inherent risk? How would they raise the money?
Role of the Board Chair
During the campaign Roland Nicholson, Jr. was the Board Chair. He had joined the board in 1984. A charismatic attorney with interests that range from music to Eastern philosophy, he is the consummate salesman and Fortune Society remains his passion. The board's role and commitments are quite different today from what they were when he joined the board over twenty-five years ago, Nicholson says. At that time, many directors were legal aid attorneys who agreed with the principles, but were not particularly active and did not contribute.
Executive Director JoAnn Page says that Nicholson demonstrated his commitment to the organization through his level of engagement, which was possible because he had the time necessary for the office. He brought passion and much energy to the board, and his institutional history with the organization was also important for the project. Page views the board chair as her partner and someone from whom she can learn. She uses the metaphor of a "load-bearing wall" to describe the importance of the board chair's role. Page says that he/she must be someone who understands the chair's role, provides knowledge and is fully committed to the organization.
When asked to describe his role, Nicholson says that he provided oversight and supervised the executive director. He describes himself as, at the time, the chief salesman, fundraiser, and cheerleader for the organization. He held other directors accountable for fulfilling their assigned tasks and took the necessary steps to ensure completion, even seeking resignations to remove deadwood. He actively recruited new board candidates and provided opportunities for other directors to assume leadership responsibilities.
As Nicholson thought more about the building project his commitment intensified, as did that of the executive committee. His enthusiasm was contagious and spread through an ever-widening inner circle. This group included the executive committee and the most engaged board members -- those whom Page said she "could call in the middle of the night" in case of crisis.
With every step, Nicholson became more involved. He walked the neighborhoods proposed for the project and was an active part of the site selection. He also had a tie to the building in Harlem that was finally selected and rehabilitated.
What the Leaders Did
Nicholson and Page worked as a team to persuade the board to move forward. Page had a proven track record. During her tenure funding had grown dramatically and had diversified. The board trusted her. She is also thoroughly engaging, and is highly regarded throughout the sector. She has shown a willingness to confront difficult issues, often in refreshing new ways.
Nicholson and Page actively sold the concept to board. They talked with directors independently and together. The board ultimately supported "the Castle" project because they knew that housing was a crucial addition to Fortune Society's mission. The board accepted the risks because they trusted the executive director and the board chair.
The executive director knew she had to make the board comfortable with the many risks of this daunting project. She structured the plan carefully and divided it into distinct stages with multiple go/no-go points:
- Stage 1: Feasibility Can it be done? What are the downside risks? Is everyone confident that the project can move forward?
- Stage 2: Early Implementation Structured with many "go / no-go" decision points.
- Stafe 3: Full Implementation No turning back.
As the ultimate fallback, the board chair pointed out, they were buying a building in a part of the city with a strong real estate market, so the property could be flipped if the project failed.
The executive director and the board chair also relied on outside experts to augment in-house experience. Outside professionals assisted with the strategic planning process; developed a feasibility study for the new housing program; and worked with the executive director to drive the capital campaign.
During the course of the project, eleven different experts were brought in to address such thorny problems as financing options for real estate, how to conduct successful capital campaigns and how to navigate the commercial real estate market, among other areas. Together, the board, the executive director and the experts developed plans and made sure that these strategies minimized the many risks to the agency.
Fortune Society was also committed to winning over its new neighbors. From 1998, when the bat-infested abandoned property was purchased as an $8-million rehabilitation project, Fortune Society attended six community meetings each month, including community board meetings, police precinct council meetings, and meetings of the Friends of Riverbank Park. Two Fortune Society staffers, both life-long West Harlem residents, were instrumental in allaying community fears and building key relationship within the community.
Success begat success. Directors were proud of their astonishing accomplishments. Challenges, large and small were overcome, which in turn made people want to work even harder. Some issues like NIMBY, served to foster new community relationships. As the agency's reputation increased, people's pride swelled. A higher national profile made people feel honored when asked to participate. This, in turn, attracted more board members. And along the way, the directors who did not agree with the agency's new direction or didn't feel engaged faded away, leaving vacancies for new, more engaged members.
As planned, it took five years from the end of the strategic planning process to opening the doors of "the Castle."
How the Board Changed Along the Way
More effective recruitment. Board retention is higher, and board participation has increased. Nicholson attributes this to a more rigorous vetting process. Early in his tenure, he would accept referrals, review prospective candidates' resumes, and have a conversation with each over lunch. He would outline a board member's responsibilities and make the "ask." More often than not, the candidate would join the board, but not necessarily become or stay actively engaged.
Over time the chair began to ask more pointed questions when meeting with candidates and to check references more thoroughly. Factors that were carefully considered included:
- Passion about the mission and the agency, and alignment with the organization's values. He favored those who already had a relationship and commitment to the organization. For example, several new board members were former staff members.
- Demonstrated leadership and management experience.
- Other board commitments. He would eliminate those candidates who had too many (since they might lack the time needed to fulfill their responsibilities) and some candidates with no experience.
Potential directors are now suggested to the nominating committee. The committee meets, reviews candidates and then, if interested, the chair and executive director take them to lunch. There they discuss, in detail, the board member's role and specific expectations.
Clear assignments. According to JoAnne Page, "A new board member is always brought on for a specific reason." For example, one new member was recruited to put on the annual benefit. Another was recruited to develop ties to a particular corporation where he worked and establish relationships with entertainment industry people. Both candidates clearly understood that these were their respective "work assignments," and agreed to them as specific prerequisites of joining the board.
By the time lunch is over, everyone knows where s/he will fit in. A new board member's assignment allows him/her to hit the ground running, which further hastens the integration process. The new member doesn't have to wait for a protocol to become clear or for someone to grant permission to proceed.
A strong executive committee. The active executive committee is almost viewed as a "super-board" or the link between management and the board. The chair considers it "the top of the governance structure." Since the inner circle works so effectively, there was the concern that the other dozen or so directors might feel left out.
To prevent that, ad hoc committees are used frequently. The board chair appoints directors to these task forces who don't participate on the executive committee. Attempts are made to make appointments that reflect a director's interests and strengths, as well as make sure that work assignments are spread across the entire board.
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