Refocusing: Clarity Brings Extraordinary Growth

How strategic planning helped The Family Conservancy narrow its services

Despite an increasingly difficult atmosphere for nonprofit human service organizations, Alliance for Children and Families member The Family Conservancy, Kansas City, Kan., grew its operating budget from $8 million in 2004 to $13 million in 2010—a 63 percent increase. How? The answer is two fold: a focused vision and the execution of a comprehensive strategic plan.

Throughout the early 2000s, The Family Conservancy functioned relatively well and was fulfilling its mission. But the organization lacked focus. Its programs and services were too broad, ranging from antipoverty, community-based, and counseling services to early education and child care programs.

“We came to realize that acting in a ‘womb to tomb’ manner wasn’t effective anymore,” says Vicki Cederburg, vice president of family support services and quality assurance at The Family Conservancy. “This approach spread us too thin. Our organizational capacity just couldn’t support this huge array of services.”

Perhaps of even greater concern was the realization that the environment in which the organization operates had changed. The community was no longer willing to support this large scope.

Creating a Roadmap

In 2004, The Family Conservancy hired Denise McNerney, CEO of iBossWell, to facilitate a strategic planning process. McNerney set the tone for the initial conversation with the phrase, “Where the focus goes, energy flows.”

That mantra served as the guiding principle, says Betsy Vander Velde, president and CEO at The Family Conservancy. “We knew we needed much greater focus; we just had to figure out what that focus should be so we could then direct our energy in the best direction.”

The board began by asking and answering several key questions:

  • What does The Family Conservancy do better than anyone else?
  • What are The Family Conservancy’s core competencies?
  • What differentiates The Family Conservancy from other nonprofits in Kansas City and the surrounding area?
  • Where can The Family Conservancy achieve the greatest return on its social investment?

Answering these questions involved industry-related research to help clarify the costs and benefits of various programs, services, and social intervention tactics.

“The information we gained through our research, coupled with our answers to the questions about our core competencies, helped lead us to the decision to focus our energy on becoming ‘the first-stop resource for families raising children,’” Vander Velde says. “We were convinced this focus would give our organization a real opportunity to make a noticable difference in people’s lives.”

Programs were narrowed to four service areas:

  • effective parenting,
  • quality early education,
  • mental health, and
  • economic empowerment.

This transition was a dramatic change in the organization’s mission and culture. With it came significant marketing and communications changes, including a new name—the agency previously operated as Heart of America Family Services—and a rebranding initiative.

“It was exciting and scary at the same time,” Vander Velde says. “We could not have done it without the courage and commitment of our staff and board, who saw this as an incredible growth opportunity and embraced it.”

To facilitate growth, the strategic plan calls for three ambitious goals to be achieved by 2014: increase the number of individuals served from 50,000 to more than 120,000; triple unrestricted giving from individual donors and fund development events; and attract volunteers, partners, and supporters who will help The Family Conservancy achieve its client and funding objectives.

Following the Roadmap

Once the strategic plan had been defined, the board was clear that it was not a static document.

“It can and should change as our organization and the environment we operate in changes,” says Dean Olson, vice president of children’s services at The Family Conservancy. “Our board uses the plan as a roadmap, but they have given us permission to make adjustments to it when needed.”

“It was exciting and scary at the same time. We could not have done it without the courage and commitment of our staff and board, who saw this as an incredible growth opportunity and embraced it.”

—Betsy Vander Velde, president and CEO, The Family Conservancy


Constant assessment and reporting are key to keeping any strategic plan alive, McNerney says. She strongly encourages all her clients, including The Family Conservancy, to continually review and update their plans. But she cautions against reserving this work for the board only.

“Everyone in an organization, the board, staff leadership, and front line employees have to see and understand that they play a crucial role in plan implementation,” she says. In other words, everyone in the organization must feel ownership in the process and feel supported in promoting ongoing change.

The assessment and reporting process at The Family Conservancy is rigorous. Staff meet quarterly to measure the organization’s progress against the critical success factors defined in the strategic plan. This assures that staff concentrate their efforts on priorities that are compatible with the strategic plan.

Annual performance plans for individual employees are similarly tied to the strategic plan.

“Every employee in our organization and every member of our board can see how the work he or she has completed impacts, not just our plan, but the fulfillment of our mission,” Cederburg says. “The performance plans have been a powerful driver behind our success.”

Following the staff reviews, reports are provided to the board of directors. These reports inform the board’s higher-level review of the strategic plan, which takes place at least quarterly.

Staying the Course

Vander Velde and staff are the first to admit that the process of reviewing the organization’s mission and vision, revamping the agency’s structure, redefining services, and then creating a plan for implementing all these changes was not always easy.

“It was painstaking, and some of the staff and board were, at first, resistant to change,” Vander Velde says. “It was difficult, but one of the best parts of the strategic planning process was bringing those differing viewpoints together and finally reaching a consensus about our future.”

It’s only natural for there to be resistance, McNerney adds, because changes of this magnitude require a culture shift.

“Planning new services can be exciting,” she says. “On the other hand, planning to discontinue services can be threatening. The implications can include a change to or loss of position for staff members or a perceived loss of influence for board members. Not surprisingly, organizational changes become very personal for individuals, and you have to humanely address those concerns as part of your planning process in order to move forward effectively.”

Opportunities for Strength and Success

“A powerful lesson we learned from the process was that we could not be all things to all people,” Vander Velde says. “We had to change how our organization operated to assure our long-term success, and that required us to take a hard look at our culture from top to bottom. This was not easy, but I’m convinced that the success we’ve had since we’ve made these changes is proof that we are a better, more effective organization.”

Vander Velde points to The Family Conservancy’s contract through the federal Head Start program as an example of how the organization’s new structure and vision has created opportunities for strength and success. Today, the Head Start contract represents 49 percent of the organization’s 2010 operating revenue.

“Shortly after we had made the decision to focus our energies on early childhood development, the opportunity to become a Head Start delegate emerged very suddenly,” Vander Velde says. “We were able to immediately seize the opportunity since it was in full alignment with our vision and goals. If we had been operating under our old structure, I know we would have struggled for weeks or months trying to decide if we could juggle this new opportunity with all our other priorities. It’s very possible that we would have missed the window of opportunity that had been opened to us, and that would have been unfortunate.”

She adds, “I used to think that strategic planning was time consuming and irrelevant because the life and use of the plan was short-lived. But for the past five years I’ve watched our plan and process work. I’m confident that we are thriving during an economic downturn because we have a plan in place and we have been dedicated to following it.”

Learn more about The Family Conservancy's strategic planning process from this more detailed account. A timeline of the organization’s evolution and 10 tips for successfully executing strategic planning are also available.

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