Focus on strategy can lead human services agencies to bold changes, participants in Kresge-supported initiative report

February 26, 2013

For human services organizations, strategic planning can often seem like a “luxury.” Yet this type of planning allows providers to make bold changes in their internal operations and the services they provide their communities.

Those were key lessons reported by agencies from around the country when they gathered in Detroit recently to compare notes about the Strategy Counts initiative of the Alliance for Children and Families.

With a four-year $5.3 million grant from Kresge’s Human Services Program, the Alliance has provided funding for 20 human services organizations across the country. That funding allows the organizations to invest in strategy-focused personnel, as well as training, technical assistance and other capacity-building measures.

Some of the human services organizations have made significant changes:

In some cases, human services providers have had to confront uncomfortable insights.

One organization faced the fact that clients felt a lack of respect. It responded with codified expectations for such matters as timely responses to clients’ phone calls. The goal: respect and sensitivity.

The Strategy Counts initiative makes it possible for human services organizations to elevate their impact in the community, says Susan Dreyfus, president and CEO of the Milwaukee-based Alliance for Children and Families. A membership association, the Alliance provides a variety of services to some 350 nonprofit human services organizations in the U.S. and Canada.

Dreyfus was in Detroit to take part in a roundtable discussionabout the strategy initiative and the broader issues in the human services sector.Strategy Counts participants took part along with  Guillermina Hernandez-Gallegos, who directs Kresge’s Human Services Program; Michael Mortell, director of the Strategy Counts initiative; and Ruth McCambridge, editor-in-chief of the Nonprofit Quarterly.

Roundtable participants repeatedly referred to strategizing as both a “luxury” and a “necessity.” 

Typically, leaders of human services organizations are so consumed by day-to-day challenges that they are unable to step back and analyze. The upshot is that many organizations don’t plan thoroughly – they react, said Tine Hansen-Turton, chief strategy officer for Public Health Management Corp. in Philadelphia. “We need to free key leadership staff  to  figure out what needs to be changed within our own systems – and then the systems around us.”

Hernandez-Gallegos said she is encouraged to see the human services organizations challenging themselves and moving out of their comfort zones. “That’s what long-range strategic planning seems to have done,” she said.

Kresge’s Human Services Program seeks to help low-income and disadvantaged people enter the economic mainstream through support for efforts to increase the effectiveness of multi-service human services organizations and advance the work of umbrella groups and networks like the Alliance for Children and Families.

Given current social, economic and political challenges, that means rethinking the human services sectors, said Hernandez-Gallegos.

“We talk about transforming the human services sector,” she said. “That begins with creating the time and personnel to revisit your reason for being, your goals – and then – the approach you’re using to achieve them.”  

As part of the Strategy Counts initiative, insights and lessons learned from each of the participating nonprofits are being gathered and shared.

Webinars, case studies and other vehicles will be used to provide that information with organizations participating in the initiative and Alliance for Children and Families member agencies.