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

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