In the beginning

Most nonprofit organizations start with someone’s vision and their passion to make a difference.  In the early, youthful days of the organization, some Board members particularly those who are the founders, will be actively engaged in running the program as volunteers.

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.  Often a combination of substance abuse, extreme poverty, domestic violence, criminal records, homelessness, hunger, no skills, no diplomas, no support system and no self-confidence.  As the executive director says, “poorer than homeless.”

During the course of years, the original program of the agency, developed by a Board member had been tweaked to provide not just these services but programs for students as well.

Knowing when to move

This program had grown but not moved on.  While success rates were strong, it became clear that something was amiss.  Teachers were developing their own modules outside the official curriculum and these varied from teacher to teacher.  These tended to respond to specific needs of the ever-changing student body that were not met by the core curriculum.  We wanted all students to have the same experience with the curriculum and we needed to create a new curriculum or find one, observed the Executive Director.

The Chair recalls being very concerned about slippage away from consistency.  However despite inconsistencies 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 major moves were needed, and luckily the founders recognized this. Ego was put aside to facilitate change.

Making the move

Built into the program at every level was evaluation.  The evaluation detailed outcomes and reported on a broad array of demographics that were 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 services which its students could access for years.  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. They searched existing programs and ended up 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.

Maintaining effectiveness

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 review outcome 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 program 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.

Program Oversight

And the Board itself changed as well.  The Board chair realized that the Board needed to be “better, stronger, smarter” and have “stronger engagement and ask better 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.  The Board began to focus on the most critical questions facing the organization, such as:

  • How can we have greater impact?
  • What did we do in the last year that caused the greatest advancement toward our goals?

Revamping of both the Board and the curriculum was made possible by a funder who supported capacity building.  The Board chair valued one crucial aspect of this support, the collection of hard program information.   He recommended that Board members read foundation proposals.  The exercise of reading a 10 page grant proposal clarified what the program was all about he said.  In this way, the Board could always ask the best questions!