How six organizations fine-tuned their economic engines
Before the creators of “Mad Men” designed their sets, they dove into the interior design collections at Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington.
The staff at Hagley, home to some the country’s best interior design and industrial design archives, wanted to keep the library free to the researchers who come there from all over the world to use the records of almost 3,000 organizations, almost eight linear miles of them.
A program from the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement (DANA) helped them do it. It centered on the dictums of business guru Jim Collins, author of the best-selling “Good to Great.”
Hagley is one of six Delaware nonprofits selected to meet with the author last June and to spend months working with a DANA mentor to create new strategic plans for 2016.
The other nonprofits are the Community Education Building, Connecting Generations, Hagley Museum and Library, Milford Housing Development Corp. and Reading Assist Institute.
Collins is renowned for his dictum that organizations should come up with a “big hairy goal,” do the things that help them get to that goal, and stop doing the things that don’t.
He advised leaders to “make sure the right people are on the bus” and “the right people are in the right seats.”
He outlined focus areas such as determining what an organization’s economic engine is — where most of their support or profits originate.
With an assist from their DANA mentor schooled in Collins-think, the library staff hammered out a win-win-win — a way to raise money, expand the Hagley collection, and still keep library services free for researchers.
It’s Hagley Heritage Curators — offering storage and preservation services to corporations and trade associations that have archival records they don’t know what to do with.
Executive Director David Cole summed it up this way: “We’re telling the world of business and the world of trade associations we’re open for business.”
“The DANA group, with the Collins methodology, helped us figure out the specifics of the plan,” Cole said. “We can now offer them, along with care of their collections, conservation, treatment, and, when they need it, reference librarians and historians who can help them do a deep dive into their collections. Say they are 100 years old and they want to celebrate that fact and promote it. We can help them pull really interesting facts and images out of that collection and help them really put it to good use.”
Beyond the business model
Cole said Hagley staff went into the DANA program with the business model tucked into the back of their minds but without much disciplined thought about how they would do it. DANA helped them develop a specific roadmap, he said.
Now, Cole expects to expand the library staff by at least a couple people to accommodate the expected growth. “Not only is this a great economic engine for us, but it goes back to our mission at Hagley — the more collections we bring to Hagley, the more it helps our prime customers, the researchers,” he said.
A serendipitous side effect for Delaware: When corporate leaders and trade associations presidents visit Hagley, they’ll also get a glance at Delaware.
“My hope is that they will get exposed to what Delaware has to offer,” Cole said. “Who knows? Maybe, in its very small way, this can help the economic engine of Delaware.”
Facing a ‘brutal fact’
Hagley is just one success story from the six nonprofits that entered the program last March.
“We’re hearing that the process itself forces you to step back and take a look at yourself,” said Sheila Bravo, DANA’s new president. “All of those focus areas allow these nonprofits to define how they are going to leverage their strengths and what they are going to do moving forward.”
At the Latin American Community Center in Wilmington’s shooting-plagued Hilltop neighborhood, a quiet shift has resulted in five layoffs, tightened hiring procedures, a much smaller mental health program and a five-star rating for the early education center.
Inspired by “Good to Great,” the center staff resolved to concentrate on one goal — eliminating the achievement gap for Latinos in Delaware.
“We have been following Jim Collins since 2007. We’ve been good, but not great,” said Maria Matos, the center’s executive director. “We want to get to great. They always say that when you have a problem the very first step is to acknowledge you have a problem.
What Jim Collins does is help you dissect yourself and face brutal facts.”
While the senior staff has following Collins since Matos distributed his book to them in 2007, the DANA program inspired them to double down this year.
At “The Latin,” as the center is known in Hilltop, the staff faced “the brutal fact” that its La Fiesta early development center really wasn’t preparing children for kindergarten, Matos said. “We had television in the rooms, chocolate chip cookies, hot dogs,” she said. “We were babysitting and not educating.”
When Matos and her staff resolved to turn their babysitting service into a five-star center under the state’s new star system, they had to eliminate five people’s jobs and move others, and Matos said they are not finished yet. “We’re still struggling with that because you have that person and you want to give them that promotion and they get the seat and it’s ooops. We find that, if we do not follow our hiring procedures, if we don’t’ ask the hard questions, nine times out of 10, they don’t work out. As humans, we make mistakes. That’s why they put erasers on pencils.”
The center shrunk its mental health services, keeping only the services that couldn’t be replicated in the city due to a shortage of providers who are bilingual and understand Latin culture, Matos said. “In order to be best at something, you need to let go of some things, and that’s really hard,” she said.
The reward: A five-star child development center where preschoolers learn on expeditions. When the 3-year-olds learn about milk, they make cheese, milk a cow and learn how the cow’s four stomachs work. “Now we teach critical thinking. It’s amazing to see these little kids,” Matos said.
Inconsistency = mediocrity
“I do appreciate DANA giving us this opportunity. We have followed Jim’s guidance all this time, and then to actually be in front of him — it was amazing,” Matos said. “He gives you a good foundation. He puts you on the path to greatness, but, once you start thinking you’re great, then you become mediocre. You start thinking you’re God’s gift to the nonprofit world.”
The one Collins principle the Latin tussled with: consistency. Collins said: “The true signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency.” Matos said: “We’re Latino. That was a hard one for us. We’re fun. We’re spontaneous. I don’t think we can be that by the book. There has to be some kind of music going on. We can’t be starched white shirts.”
DANA’s Bravo said things won’t necessarily happen overnight but focusing on the objectives Collins outlines will have an effect on selected nonprofits. “The Good-to-Great planning process is a reflective process that allows nonprofit leaders and their boards to step back and understand their process and how their economic-resource engines can be leveraged to allow them to do what they are passionate about, ” Bravo said.
“Clearly, nonprofits are being challenged to operate, I hate to say this, but just like a business, said Brian Gaerity, executive director of Connecting Generations, “There are similar enough aspects to what we do and what corporations do that we can benefit from what Jim Collins and others have done.”
Close the achievement gap
The Community Education Building goal was to close the achievement gap for all students and become a reproducible model for international competitive excellence in urban education by 2025.
CEO Aretha Miller said the group’s leadership and board of directors are making every effort to find national models they can adapt to Wilmington and Delaware. She said appreciates that she can share ideas with the DANA team and get honest feedback.
Putting mission into focus
Connecting Generations, which has 1,700 active mentors serving nearly 2,000 students in 85 Delaware schools, decided to focus on two programs — a character-development program for at-risk youth and a one-on-one school mentoring program.
Gaerity said the DANA mentor his group worked with helped them develop a sharp focus that drew new supporters, although it didn’t please everyone. “We’re not a big organization. We don’t have a lot of resources. We can’t afford to waste resources. Our board meetings have gotten crisper and more focused. The board rules are clearer, so the actions are clearer. What we’re not doing any more of is where not having any more of those wide-open discussions like, ‘Gosh, why don’t we start expanding into another state.’” Gaerity said. “This has put the brake on all of that.”
Armed with a strong strategic plan, Connecting Generations has attracted new supports and expanded its core programs. “The strength of the strategic plan allowed us to attract new board members. We’re a much better, stronger organizations, smarter and certainly more focused,” Gaerity said.
He said some board members left because they felt the organization was no longer as broad as they’d like. “We have to give up the idea that we can do all things. We can’t,” he said. “We need to focus our efforts on the programs that we know are going to make a difference.”
One sea change: Connecting Generations is no longer working entirely solo. They recently submitted a grant proposal in concert with Delaware Futures and Teach for America. “For all nonprofits in Delaware, I think we’re at a turning point. It’s important that we all take our roles very seriously, but also that we all work together to solve a problem. Let’s not be competitors, but, instead, let’s be much more cooperative about what we do,” Gaerity said.
At Reading Assist, a nonprofit that teaches children with academic challenges to read on grade level, the Collins program confirmed the staff’s belief that they should narrow their focus.
“There were things in our program that we had to let go off because they did not tie back into what our objectives are,” Executive Director Vickie Innes said. “The Collins program really forced you to look deeper into what you should be doing.”
Innes said her group identified the intensive reading intervention they supply as their greatest strength so they partnered with Americorps and the Colonial School District to put 15 full-time fully trained Americorps members in schools every day to work with 100 students.
Innes said no one at Reading Assist was let go, but some shifted seats. “The direction became so clear to everyone that each person could see where their strengths were and what part they would play in moving the organization forward,” Innes said.
Now the group is so focused on the common goal that staffers will come to Innes with an idea, but then promptly add it’s not going to work because it doesn’t fit in with the objectives. “They feel more empowered. If everyone is on the same page and moving in the same direction, it allows people on staff to make decisions on their own,” she said.
“The Jim Collins program really allowed us to examine what we do best and take it to the next level,” Innes said.
“When you think about it, how many of us do that, even in our own lives”’ she asked. “How many of us ask what things do we do best and what things should we let go of?”