Thought Partnership

Thought PartnershipThought Partnership: 3 Organizational Leaders Reflect On Prioritizing, Shifting Direction, and Working With Critical Peers

“Most U.S. corporations are over-managed and under-led” writes John P. Kotter in the Harvard Business Review. This challenge grows exponentially when it meets the non-profit world of tight budgets, low-overhead and rapid change. Leaders today are managing accountability and accounts payable, budgets and boards, fundraising and facilities. They have little time or intellectual capital to be strategic and too often, they get stuck managing and not leading.

At this point, our clients tell us it is enormously helpful to have an external critical peer who can help them bridge the gap from possibility to progress: in its essence, a thought partner.

Thought Partnership: A “Best Practice” In A Competitive Nonprofit Landscape

According to Maureen Holla, the managing partner at Onward Consulting who specializes in Strategic Thought Partnership, these relationships can be transformational. Holla says they expand an organization’s intellectual capital helping them to ask better questions, focus on priorities, and advance faster than they thought possible.

“Thought partnership is different. Rather than managing a project or conducting research, our job is to provide insights from diverse industries that then challenge leaders and organizations in their thinking and their practice. It can provoke an organization to improve and to innovate.”

Onward borrows from a vast arsenal of academic literature, research studies, experiences, examples and case studies, but tailors each encounter to specific knowledge of the institutions they work with.  For example when working with a justice campaign, Onward shared the strategic plans and documents from a seatbelt campaign to underscore how a campaign needs to do more than just change laws, but also change mindsets.  The result is a dynamic collaboration that produces results– proving that two heads are truly better than one.

Client Reviews

To learn more about what clients get from these contracts, we interviewed three Onward clients:

  • Holly O’Donnell, Executive Director of America Scores
  • Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the national Campaign for Youth Justice
  • Kristin Scotchmer Founder and Executive Director of Mundo Verde Public Charter School

Holly O’Donnell is the Executive Director of America SCORES, a national nonprofit that provides after-school programming like soccer, poetry and service-learning to 8,000 urban youth at over 150 public and charter schools in 14 cities. “There is always a lot to do with not enough time and not enough resources, so I knew I was ready to hire outside help,” says O’Donnell. “The main issues I wanted to address were high-level and conceptual: How can we expand into new, more interesting, and more informative areas?”

Marcy Mistrett is the new CEO at Campaign for Youth Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing, and incarcerating youth under 18 in the adult criminal justice system. “As an Executive Director who followed a Founder, there were many things that needed my attention, not to mention a steep learning curve,” Mistrett explains. “I knew I needed outside help because I was stuck. I needed a neutral voice to help move the organization forward, rather than just put out fires.”

Kristin Scotchmer is the Executive Director for Mundo Verde, Washington’s first “green” public charter school providing free education to children ages 3-10 with an emphasis on expeditionary learning, environmental stewardship and bilingual curriculum. “We’ve worked on a lot of different projects with Onward over the last three years, and all of them helped us take the next step during times of change.”

While the specific projects among these three were different in nature, all three CEOs/executive directors came with the same core need: to find a strategic thinking partner who could look at the bigger picture, ask the tough questions and provide critical guidance when they needed it most.

 

Thought Partnership Contract Identifies Key Questions, Problems & Opportunities For Future Growth at America Scores

It’s easy to become addicted to the creative, energetic meeting of minds that inevitably comes along with the right sort of Thought Partnership contract.

“When I sat with Maureen, I realized she understood the challenges and opportunities of our organization from her personal experience as an Executive Director and from all her work as a consultant,” Holly O’Donnell recalls. America SCORES started out budgeting for 20 hours, but “would have liked 20,000 more,” they admit. To get started, Onward reviewed the business model, work, and strategic plans, as well as spending crucial time listening to organizational executives and participating in two-way Q&A interview sessions.

For the America SCORES team, Thought Partnership meetings were enjoyable because Onward consultant interactions were filled with “energy, intelligence, street smarts, listening skills, emotional support, kindness and humor.” In that regard, having a critical peer on hand is a breath of fresh air. “Onward is excellent at listening to a lot of information and then zeroing in on the key problems, questions and opportunities,” O’Donnell explains, adding: “They’re just smart firecrackers!”

Onward documents all thinking, combines it with research and helps develop critical plans and materials to help organizations advance. For America Scores, the final product was a succinct PowerPoint deck full of high-level graphics and text that summarized where America SCORES has been, what they’ve accomplished so far, where they need to go in the future, and recommendations on how they can get there. Onward wasn’t afraid to ask the tough, deep questions that delve into the heart of the issues at hand. O’Donnell says she appreciates that all recommendations and questions from Onward consultants are based on “articles, real-life examples and experience, research and best practices – not just the opinion of one.” In this case, Onward provided clear direction that helped America SCORES hone in on the decisions that needed to be made to take the organization forward in 2016.

“Like most other executives I think, I’ve got a lot of random information, big ideas and major worries in my head,” O’Donnell explains, “being able to sort through it and provide me with key points to focus on and decisions to make is no small task. Our Thought Partnership contract has helped to build my confidence and move faster. My consultant was the combination of a professor, an advocate / organizer, a therapist and the Energizer Bunny into one person. I highly recommend this type of contract for anyone who has important organizational opportunities, issues and questions that need to be answered.”

 

Thought Partnership Proves Crucial During Time Of Transition & Change Of Leadership at the Campaign for Youth Justice

The Campaign For Youth Justice (CFYJ) contract began with 5-10 hours of constructive brainstorming. “I began to see the opportunities for myself, rather than just feeling the weight and the stress of pressing decisions,” Mistrett says. “Having Onward as a Thought Partner helped me focus my attention in key areas, articulate the issues, and gave me a neutral party to help prioritize based on organizational best interest – not staff personalities. They weren’t afraid to ask the really tough questions.”

“Onward’s output is extremely high quality and Maureen Holla is by nature inquisitive—so she drives down deep to get to all the questions. She is a very good listener, and if she doesn’t understand something? Well, it’s likely I didn’t either. She helped me get through to what the real issues were. “

At CFYJ the Thought Partnership work was geared toward helping the board of directors make critical decisions, developing vetting criteria to select strategic priorities and identifying the big strategic wins. The objectivity of a third-party consultant and the hands-on approach to the work brought the whole team on board. Staff felt as though their voices were captured and were important in moving The Campaign For Youth Justice mission forward.

Onward consultants listened to the issues facing the campaign and drew lightning-quick connections to similar work done with other campaigns. Thought Partners kept staff members on-task to meet critical deadlines and delivered materials designed to bring the team together. Because the consultants went the extra mile in getting to know campaign staff members, they were highly respected throughout the interaction, which reflected well on the new Executive Director as well.

“Maureen helped me focus on critical organizational development needs that I wouldn’t have been able to facilitate as effectively on my own. Her objectivity as a consultant helped to bring the whole team on board, as they felt it was their work….not just mine. I find this partnership to be invaluable.”

In the end, the Thought Partnership experience clarified the organization’s direction, empowered board members to make strategic decisions and helped Mistrett feel more confident as a new leader.

 

Thought Partnership Saves Time During Times of Transition at Mundo Verde

For Kristin Scotchmer the Founder of Mundo Verde Public Charter School, “I was trying to move us in a certain direction and needed outside help to make that happen. I felt urgency but I didn’t necessarily have someone internally to carry it. I needed to carry it, but I couldn’t. I needed another executive director. “

“Onward was a quick study,” according to Scotchmer, who says her organization derived a lot from just two or three hours of Thought Partnership work.

“I think I did have some reservations initially that our time could add up quickly,” Scotchmer says, “but an hour of preliminary consulting gave me some assurance as we decided on the scope of work together. The early planning and development work we did exploring the challenges and goals of the organization evolved into a really productive Thought Partnership contract that gave me more clarity on what I was trying to accomplish.”

A Thought Partner takes a long view that is really helpful during times of transition. “It’s easy to get focused on the moment, but they help us step back and look forward long enough to create some changes,” Scotchmer says. “They’ve given us concrete solutions to move forward as an institution based on their knowledge of social change, nonprofit organizations and the environment in which we’re operating.” Scotchmer enjoys working with Onward consultants because she respects their deep experience in nonprofits, schools and education, as well as their “high-energy, results-oriented” approach. “They’re willing to push to get something done, but they also listen and hear when something might not be the right direction,” she clarifies.

Scotchmer recommends Thought Partnership contracts due to the sheer “speed and depth at which something can happen.” She admits that she could probably take on some of the work herself, but she doesn’t necessarily have the time to “work as deeply or quickly” as she needs to. “It might take me months to carve out the right amount of time for something Onward moved forward in a matter of hours.”

Scotchmer summarizes:

“With Onward, we’ve learned a lot and grown, gotten deeper and more specific. Our senior leadership team’s roles and responsibilities are much clearer. We now know what is strategically important for the coming year and who is responsible for what. Thanks to our work with Onward, we can look to the coming year with greater confidence.”

 

For more information on Thought Partnership, please contact Maureen Holla at mholla@onwardconsulting.com.

An Open Letter To Control Participants in Higher Achievement’s Study

Dear “Control” Participant,

I am writing to say thank you.

13 years ago, Higher Achievement began its efforts to prove its impact with a randomized control study of its scholars. I was executive director then, and the idea for the study was born in a conversation where I was repeatedly asked how I could be absolutely sure that it was Higher Achievement that was responsible for the scholars’ success. I wasn’t absolutely sure. I realized that being able to precisely measure Higher Achievement’s impact would require a professional academic study, so I recruited an enormously talented PhD Candidate in economics from MIT to devise and execute one. Leigh Linden (now Dr. Linden) came with knowledge, energy and grit. Other than reimbursement for his bus fare from Boston to DC, he was unpaid.

The first few years were rocky. There was no funding for the study, one third of our staff quit with the first randomization in 2001; and parents, staff and schools got angry with Higher Achievement and me personally because of the study.

Randomized control trials, while the gold standard of evaluation studies, are enormously challenging and even more so, given the context and resources we were working with. In a neighborhood with a reasonable suspicion of “experiments” (most infamously the Tuskegee experiments), explaining to staff and partners that we would not be “experimenting” on kids was problematic. Internally, time was also a challenge. Staff had to work twice as hard to recruit twice as many students, a random half of whom would serve as the control group – kids that met all the criteria for Higher Achievement, but would be evaluated for comparison to those who actually participated in Higher Achievement. Indeed, the largest challenge was telling a family about the study and how only half of the qualified applicants would become a Higher Achievement Scholar – but, they all wanted to be one.

We knew how badly they wanted to be scholars (they were signing up for 650 additional hours of academic study a year) and just how well qualified they were. We saw their report cards, test scores, essays, sure, but we also talked at length with families and we interviewed every single candidate individually to learn about their hopes, dreams and lives. We fell in love.

Then, after grouping the students by demographic criteria (grades, test scores, attendance rates, neighborhood, ethnicity, gender, income) Dr. Linden would randomly segregate the group into two. Essentially, twin groups exactly the same: one “treatment” and one “control”.
Treatments got to be in Higher Achievement and so many of our loves were put into the control group –never to get the chance to attend Higher Achievement ever.

It was then and still is heartbreak.

In the beginning, I required every single person on staff to conduct interviews. It was important to me that every single person felt the joy of having a student accepted and the pain of having a student become a “control”. This was especially difficult, as inevitably treatment students would drop out –some before they ever started Higher Achievement! But they were counted as a treatment scholar forever. No, we could not switch them for a control.

After a few years of practice we got better at explaining why the study was important. We had to demonstrate the growth was solely due to a student’s participation in Higher Achievement and not due to any other factor – not their school, or their family, or their teacher’s new math curriculum, not even due to their own work ethic.

Over time, we applied for funds to support the evaluation specifically. With every door-closing “no” I would jam in my foot to ask “why?” Leigh (who by this time had graduated MIT and was teaching at Columbia) would help us to learn from their rejections to improve and evolve our work.

The team at Atlantic Philanthropies was the first to see what this study could be.  They were essential to our early learning and development.  Then, the William T. Grant Foundation (WTG) got involved thanks to Atlantic’s early investment.  We applied for grants from the WTG Foundation three times and worked through two “no’s to get to the final “yes.” But to get to yes, we had to do the study differently. There were conditions. First, we had to hire known researchers in the field: Public Private Ventures was to lead the evaluation. We made sure Dr. Leigh Linden was part of the team (and that he would finally get paid!). After 5 years of running the study, we had to start again with a cadillac $3 million study.

Long story short, Higher Achievement did show impact. This week, because of that study and the work of many, it was named the “highest rated applicant” for a prestigious $12 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Of the 400 organizations that applied, Higher Achievement was one of three selected and the first afterschool and summer program in the country to be awarded a grant of this size.

Higher Achievement will grow and will serve more children around the country. More lives will be changed and more opportunities will be earned for hard-working children. There are many people to thank: the research team, the funders, the board, staff and scholars, the schools and parents –so many to thank…

Yet amid all these thank yous, there is a group missing. The largest debt of gratitude we owe goes to those “control” students and their families; the ones who didn’t get in. The ones we cried about, worried about, that broke our hearts. The ones who didn’t have the same outcomes and opportunities despite all the same potential, because they were randomly selected as “controls”.

Our debt to you is enormous.

My greatest hope is that someday, in Richmond, Baltimore, DC, Pittsburgh or wherever else that Higher Achievement grows, that your child will come home with a flyer about an afterschool program and because of you and your sacrifice, your child will be called to join Higher Achievement.

With deep admiration and humble thanks,

Ms. Maureen

You can learn more about Higher Achievement at: www.higherachievement.org
You can learn more about the i3 grant at – http://1.usa.gov/10FEFjG

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Maureen Holla
Managing Partner
Onward!
DC Tel: 202.536.2882
Brazil Tel: (61) 9929 – 1583
www.onwardconsulting.com
Email: mholla@onwardconsulting.com
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/maureenholla

Thought Leadership in the Not-For-Profit World

What is Thought Leadership?

The term was coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Booz & Co magazine Strategy & Business, and used to designate interview subjects for that magazine who had business ideas that merited attention.

Forbes defines it as such:

A thought leader is an individual or firm who’s prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.[1]

At its root, Thought Leadership is about content marketing –how you share (market) what you know or have learned.   Ideally, those who are marketing their content are the “foremost authorities.”

The same Forbes article quoted above goes on to say, “A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognized as such.”

 

What is Profit to a Not-For-Profit?

For-profits know what profit is –its money.  There is absolute clarity on what they are working for and it’s easy to count and quantify–its money!   What is profit to the not-for-profit?  (And why must we define ourselves but what we don’t work for?)

Non-profits DO have profit –they simply define it differently.  Their profit is impact, impact on the social good. When I led Higher Achievement our profit was student grades, test scores, attendance, punctuality, and opportunity –specifically the number and quality of top high school placements.  As a CEO of a school system, profit was student mastery of grade appropriate academic content and social emotional development.  We have profit, but its not money.

 

How does A Not-For-Profit Use Thought Leadership?

Non-profits are similar to our for-profit counterparts, but not the same.  This distinction affects how the different sectors view the role of a Thought Leader.  For-profits use Thought Leadership to differentiate themselves from the competition for the purpose of business development.  It increases demand for a product or service (demand creation) and, as the recognized innovator and leader, enables them to get more business and charge more for their services.

Non-for-profits are similar, but not the same (I said it again!).  They use Thought Leadership to advance their ideas and experiences by inspiring others.  It is an external way of pursuing mission.

The key strategy is to be different from competitors… They [not-for-profits] break free from “be better” internally oriented initiatives to “be different” externally oriented strategies.[2]

It can also have different objectives, in the non-profit world.  For example:

  • To Create More Opportunities: Similar to the for-profit sector, the goal is to raise awareness of your work in order to create opportunities: increased funding, talented staff, connected board members, etc.
  • To Build a Following: Non-profits evangelize via Thought Leadership so other organizations believe what they believe and execute accordingly.
  • To Advocate for Change: Some organizations use Thought Leadership as their advocacy strategy.  They advocate for changes in laws, systems and/or the way things work.

Ultimately, non-profits can increase the speed and power of their impact by inspiring and influencing critical stakeholders (practitioners, investors, policy makers) to join them, to think and act similarly.  As a result, they multiply their impact with the collaborative support and learning from a community of practitioners and supporters.

At Onward, we are thoroughly impressed by the number of not-for-profits who are striving to be Thought Leaders for their field; for purposes beyond their individual impact but rather to collaborate and help build a united effort and conscious about an issue: societal profit.  Whether it is teaching sustainability; treating adjudicated youth and juveniles; or helping first generation college students graduate, not-for-profit leaders are always looking for ways to maximize their “profit” and Thought Leadership is one more strategy for their tool box.

Worth Noting:

During my research I uncovered this gem in a comment on a blog posting:

Social scientists now promote the view that there are 3 stages beyond Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.   After we self actualize (stage 5), we become more fulfilled by helping others grow (stage 6), then we evolve our awareness of our eco-impact on the world (stage 7) and then we come into unity consciousness (stage 8) at which level wisdom is acquired and for these individuals – fulfillment is found in daily solitary reflection on how s/he makes a positive influence in the world each day.

Hmmmmm “positive influence in the world each day” that sounds a lot like a not-for-profit’s profit to me.

My best,

Maureen Holla

Managing Partner

 

Sources:

http://www.socialbrite.org/2013/05/13/how-to-establish-thought-leadership-for-your-nonprofit/

http://blog.crowdvance.com/2014/01/31/how-your-non-profit-can-become-a-thought-leader/

http://www.thoughtleadershipstrategy.net/2009/07/definitions-of-thought-leadership/

http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2013/10/thought-leadership-strategy-content-innovation/

http://www.fastcompany.com/3003897/golden-rules-creating-thoughtful-thought-leadership#comments

http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2013/10/thought-leadership-strategy-content-innovation/

 

 



[1]  “What is a Thought Leader?” Forbes (http://www.forbes.com/sites/russprince/2012/03/16/what is a thought leader/

[2] Professors Terrell and Middlebrooks of the Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and University of Chicago Graduate School of Business

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Non-Profit Accountability

I’m not writing about Clint Eastwood’s movie, not really. I am writing about data and its co-star accountability.

So much of Onward’s work –whether it be assessments, strategic and operational planning, talent acquisition or helping an organization create an accountability model – so much comes down to these two stars.  Occasionally, as consultants we walk a tightrope with clients when their data tells a story of challenge.  How will the client respond?

I have learned a lot these past years working with a gamut of organizations –most fantastic, some …well, not fantastic. What’s the difference? Fantastic organizations want to be better.  They are willing to hear the good, the bad and the ugly and work together with data to improve, to seize opportunity, and be accountable for their work.   Their courage makes their organizations stronger, more efficient, and closer to achieving their mission.

The not fantastic? Well, they don’t.

They are threatened by data, may prefer to ignore data, deny the data or in some particularly egregious examples –hide the data. Those organizations that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) use data to inform and improve their work, suffered. Maybe not immediately, but over time.  The demand for their services decreased, their talent moved on, and their board and revenues dwindled.

Which are you?

Like Tuco said in the The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:

I feel a man like you can manage it. And if you don’t manage it, you’ll die.  Only slowly, very slowly old friend.

Are you managing your data with courage?

Two new articles explore this reality deeper. One is Mario Marino’s post “Can you Handle the Truth?” It calls for courage facing and using data.  The second is an HBR article that looks into bad habits that stymie leaders’ ability to use data effectively.

Have a look and as Clint says:

In this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig.

Load up with data; aim better, work smarter, never stop learning and you won’t have to dig.

Mission Focused Fundraising

Leveraging the calendar to advance your mission and raise funds is strategic, smart and efficient.  This year, two clients are moving their mission in celebration of Valentine’s Day.  Both the Higher Achievement Program and the Washington Literacy Center are celebrating literacy, learning and love; while raising awareness of and funds for their important work.

If you are in DC and have the time, please check out these events Higher Achievement’s Literary Love Poem Contest and the Washington Literacy Center’s Love Letters for Literacy.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

What makes a great leader?

Smart CEO magazine polled the CEOs of their Future 50 winning companies on the attributes that make a great leader.  The list comprises Innovator, Example-Setter, Decider, Communicator, Servant Coach, Team-Builder, Risk Taker, Motivator, Self-Improver, Creator, Visionary, Change Agent, Listener.

No leader can or should be everything all the time. Yet, some are absolutely necessary all the time.  I like these five: Visionary, Team-Builder, Motivator, Listener and Self-Improver.

Any leader who can clearly set the direction, build and motivate the team to execute, who listens deeply to all stakeholder groups and who strives to be better every day is a leader to watch.

Do you know a great leader?  What do you think are the most important attributes of a great leader?

Onward and Upward for 2012!

I am excited to announce the formation of Onward Consulting, a refreshing new firm created by three leading executive directors: Maureen Holla, Marcy Mistrett and Karin Walser.

Onward offers an innovative combination of strategy, tactical planning and execution.
We offer exceptional work at a reasonable cost—work that will help you achieve your mission more effectively than ever before.

As nonprofit leaders, we repeatedly paid top-dollar for mediocre consulting services.
We asked ourselves—did it really have to cost that much? Did organizations devoted to improving our world really need to pay exorbitant rates for average work? Onward is different. We are devoted to helping you succeed, and—at the end of the day—we want every, single client to say, “With Onward, we got MUCH more than we paid for.”

We help organizations raise more funds, become more effective, change more lives.
We will stand by you as you manage a crisis or undergo a transition. We will help you communicate your message more effectively, recruit more volunteers and coach you through challenges. And, if the time has come for either you or your organization to pass the reins to someone else, we will help make the transition as seamless as possible.

Leading a nonprofit can be overwhelming at times. We have been in your shoes; we have begged for money, managed difficult staff, and planned programs. We will roll up our sleeves to help you solve the problem, create the plan, hire the staff and ensure the work gets done.

Onward gives you another experienced executive director by your side, for as long or as short as you need it.

Plus, we’re fun.

Please visit www.onwardconsulting.com to learn more. We can’t wait to help you save the world!

Sometimes It’s About the Journey

A walk with a four-year-old takes time. It isn’t about where you’re going, it’s about what you experience along the way: construction workers rebuilding a street, mushrooms growing in a city park, a chance encounter with a wet spaniel. The learning and growing comes from the journey.

Occasionally, we forget this at work. We focus on metrics, benchmarks and outcomes, quantifying our impact. It’s easy to overlook the process: listening, studying the work of others, collaboration, kindness and teamwork. Instead, we get caught up in the destination: the next promotion, making more money. We lose the opportunity for learning along the way.

Share with us how you or how your organization prioritizes the product with the process. How do you achieve balance?

Welcome to the Onward! Blog

Welcome to Onward!, a blog promoting excellence in the nonprofit sector. We’ll share stories about nonprofit success and tools to help nonprofits move onward and upward. And sometimes we’ll just share our personal reflections.

Onward! is a project of Onward Consulting, a network of veteran nonprofit leaders: CEOs, executive directors and senior managers with experience as transformative leaders and hands-on, nonprofit managers.

Our passion is nonprofit excellence. Our mission is to advance the efforts and capability of nonprofits so they can achieve their mission faster and with greater social return.

Each of us at Onward has achieved success creating and growing nonprofit organizations, and each of us wanted to do more and learn more. We hope this blog is part of that learning across the nonprofit arena. So please share your own ideas and resources for nonprofit excellence. Together, we truly can change the world!