By Robert Kalesse
Special to Delaware Business Times
The executive directors and board members of six Delaware nonprofits are currently involved in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve their organizations strategically in the hopes of going from good to great.
That’s because the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement (DANA) has secured the assistance and wisdom of business expert Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great: Lessons for the Social Sector.” Collins will meet with the selected fellowship of nonprofits when he speaks at the DANA 2015 Annual Conference at the Chase Center on the Riverfront on June 15.
DANA CEO and President Chris Grundner, long a proponent, fan, and reader of all the works produced by Collins, is excited to hear the business guru’s speech, but is particularly interested in how the nonprofits selected to meet with Collins for a “Socratic session” beforehand will take advantage of the experience.
“A lot of organizations would pay good money to have this kind of interaction with Mr. Collins,” Grundner said. “Instead, as part of the program, these six nonprofits have the chance to develop a six-month strategic plan for their organizations, using the methods Mr. Collins describes in his monograph, as well as a sit-down critique with Mr. Collins himself.”
The nonprofits tapped to participate include Hagley Museum and Library, the Community Education Building, the Reading Assist Institute, the Milford Housing Development Corporation, Connecting Generations, and the Latin American Community Center.
Last year, DANA sent out copies of Collins’ 44-page monograph, which served as an accompaniment to his original 2001 publication, “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t,” to more than 800 nonprofits in Delaware but selected only six to participate in the fellowship. Grundner said the six were chosen due to a hand-in-hand relationship between each organization’s executive director and board chair, a willingness to put in the time and effort required and a belief in the Collins system.
“Since February, a DANA consultant has been meeting with each nonprofit to force them to have conversations they might not normally have,” Grundner said. “By asking the difficult questions about their organizations, we can explore issues that haven’t been discussed before, and figure out ways to bolster the positives and eliminate the negatives.”
Each nonprofit was sent a set of 12 questions from Collins, which relates directly to his written works. Each organization was then required to answer those questions and produce a two-to-three-page synopsis of their organization and business strategy for the coming year and return it to Collins.
On June 15 each executive director will have the chance to sit down with Collins prior to his speech before an estimated crowd of more than 1,000 people at the Chase Center. From there, each nonprofit will incorporate Collins’ critique and advice into its strategic plan for the next year, all with a deadline of late September.
The Collins Approach
A Stanford graduate and author or co-author of six different business-management and growth-related works, James C. Collins has long been looked upon as one of the most influential business lecturers and minds in the world, with most of his focus dedicated to the for-profit arena.
His 2005 monograph, “Good to Great: Lessons for the Social Sector,” has appealed to many leaders and executive directors from the nonprofit world. In the mongraph, Collins discusses how nonprofits can become great organizations, even though the challenges are more complex than for private-sector companies.
David Cole, executive director of Hagley Museum and Library, has been familiar with Collins’ work for 15 years. He said Collins’ work has been very influential, and his staff and board of directors are learning so on a firsthand basis.
“The timing couldn’t be better for us here at Hagley, as we are looking to create a new strategic initiative for the library portion of the estate, in particular,” Cole said. “As the premier collection institution in the country for business and commerce, we want to offer a suite of services for those who want us to care for their historic materials and tell the story behind them.”
Cole said that, by using Collins’ methods, he and his board of directors and key staff members are able to figure out how Hagley will differentiate itself from other research libraries, how they will brand and market themselves, and how they can determine if they have “the right people on the bus,” as Collins puts it.
“That’s one of the key phrases used in his work,” Cole said. “The focus is really figuring out, as a nonprofit, what you’re passionate about, how that aligns with your overall mission statement, how you are relevant in the community and your ability to make an impact, and whether or not you have the right talent aligned for those ambitions.”
Many of these questions were included in the 12-part challenge offered up by Collins when the program began through DANA back in February and they focus largely on what Collins calls the “hedgehog concept.”
The first part of the concept is “passion,” or an understanding of each nonprofit’s core values and mission. The second is “best at,” or an understanding of what each nonprofit can uniquely contribute better than others. The third is the “resource engine,” or an understanding of what best drives a nonprofit’s resource engine in three parts: time, money, and brand.
Vickie Innes, executive director of the Reading Assist Institute, which is dedicated to teaching the foundational skills of reading to children with significant academic challenges, said that implementing the “hedgehog concept” into the daily operations of her organization has already put Reading Assist Institute on a path to perform better as a nonprofit.
“In the corporate, or for-profit, world, success can pretty much be measured in one way, and everyone is on board with satisfying the bottom line,” Innes said. “But with a nonprofit, each person has different ideas of what we should be doing and how we should operate, whether it’s community engagement, deadlines on objectives, or engaging with our clients.
“By working with DANA and using Mr. Collins’ methods, we are getting everyone together to establish a strategic plan to go from good to great, as the book says,” Innes said. “That typically doesn’t happen in a nonprofit, so even early on in the process, we are becoming a more cohesive group with a clearer mission.”
The idea of a clearer mission and getting a board of directors on the same page with key staff members was one aspect that really stood out to David Moore, executive director of the Milford Housing Development Corporation. Moore believes that improving those aspects is something that will benefit his nonprofit for years to come.
“This process and the teachings of Mr. Collins aren’t just something to be implemented and then put on the shelf,” Moore said. “Rather, it’s a foundation of good practices and a stepping-off point, so that in 25 years, when most of us are no longer working at our respective nonprofits, things will still be thriving and growing. Realizing that no one is an owner and that we all must be striving toward the same agreed-upon goals is a primary lesson we’ve learned thus far.”
When the time comes to meet Collins on June 15, Maria Matos, executive director of the Latin American Community Center, is excited to hear what the expert will say and how he will constructively criticize her nonprofit organization.
“This is an amazing opportunity for all of us as we work on our core values and really attempt to figure out who we are as a nonprofit,” Matos said. “It has been a rigorous process thus far, with many hours put in to using the teachings of Mr. Collins. We are a little bit nervous about his critique, naturally, but we are really excited to see what ways he can suggest to make our organization great.”