The Philanthropic Evolution

What happens when a nonprofit that is organized for the purpose of helping others and making a difference in their community, needs help themselves? 

Lack of surplus (profit) margins, rising costs, competition for labor, and the decline in Federal and State funding is making it increasingly difficult for nonprofits to sustain themselves financially. There is even the question of whether the government will be able to continue their support of nonprofit organizations. 

This is where Philanthropy and the evolution of philanthropic giving can help.

Unlike for-profits, nonprofits do not carry margins large enough to fund growth and they lack access to capital markets, venture capital, or equity/ownership options. Nonprofits need resources to fund investments in growth, change capital, build capacity, acquire necessary talent, support consolidation, and to make improvements in technology infrastructure. Many organizations are in need of one-time investments to bring them into a competitive or viable position, while others require larger, on-going funding.

Foundations and donors are beginning to realize this need and the importance of investing differently but it is critical that the pace and geographic reach of this evolution increases. 

Philanthropic giving is positioned to become the new funding source for those nonprofit organizations that would otherwise be forced to close their doors due to the decline in government funding. This will allow countless capable organizations the ability to continue to add value to our towns, communities, and country. 

Start the conversation today and let’s help those that are helping others.

Developing Organizational Culture and One Person’s Paradise

In a small-town in northern Massachusetts, you will find a gas station owner and operator who lives each day as if it’s a day spent in Paradise. While many would automatically assume the location of his business to be idyllic, this man’s paradise is actually his state-of-mind.

He greets each customer that enters his doors with the word “Paradise!” and shouts it to those driving by. The walls of his business are covered with signs that read “Paradise”. He does all of this to share the joy he feels for being alive; running his own business; serving local customers; and for it simply being a new day.

He derives daily inspiration from his notion of paradise and his message has had a profoundly positive effect on the culture of his community. Visiting his gas station has become an experience that reminds people to appreciate life and enjoy the things that truly matter. More importantly, it inspires people to share that enthusiasm with those around them.

Now, consider for a moment how this concept may extend to a business or a nonprofit organization. If one man’s outlook can so positively influence the culture of an entire community then the same must hold true for leaders wishing to foster their own positive organizational culture. 

Taking the time to align expectations to messaging and then making the commitment to delivering the message clearly and consistently, is where building a Leader’s Paradise begins. 

Ask the Board Chair: Tim Allen, Board Chair of CLASS, Inc.

Recently, Tim Allen, Board Chair of CLASS, Inc. sat down to answer 5 questions about mergers:

CS: Many organizations are considering some form of consolidation or merger these days. As the Chairman of the Board of Directors at CLASS, Inc, how did your organization come to the realization that considering a merger was an important strategic move?

TA: There were a number of considerations, the first being the financial pressures that agencies like ours have been experiencing. Our operating costs increase with each fiscal year but our state and federal reimbursement rates have not kept pace with these increases. We needed to take a step back and consider all options that would allow us to preserve the mission of our agency. We needed to find a way to survive and thrive, and consolidation was our best option.

CS: The merger process requires a great deal of time, capacity, and energy from the Board of Directors. What should Boards considering mergers be prepared for?

TA: The Directors should be prepared to address new issues and a level of complexity that they may not have experienced ever before, both of which require the assistance of subject matter experts to help along the way.

We were fortunate in that we had people on our Board that had previous experience with for- profit mergers and acquisitions. While that has helped us a great deal, we still lacked the expertise in the non-profit space.

Finding someone to guide the Board in understanding the process, what it takes, what needs to be done, as well as the disruption that it causes, is critical in ensuring success.

CS: The merger process does not come without challenges. What are a few of the obstacles or challenges you have faced as Chair? As a Board? And how did you overcome them?

TA: Getting the right Team together, keeping that Team together and understanding what it’s going to take to keep the process moving forward.

As Chair, it was a challenge to keep the merger Team that we established as a subset of the Board in one piece. Every Board experiences turnover for a variety of reasons and we are not exempt from that. It’s a big commitment seeing this process through and holding that Team together. This was something we struggled with. My challenge was to keep that Team together because we needed the knowledge, experience, and comfort that we were accustomed to, during a time of great disruption and uncertainty.

Another challenge stems from the reality that there are many internal and external groups invested in the process that have a seat at the table. We worked hard and found success by keeping open communication with everyone throughout the process. We made sure that everyone was part of the process from its inception and that the level of engagement remained consistent.

It is important for Boards to remember that any challenges, such as those I mentioned, shouldn’t outweigh the benefits of a merger.

CS: Successful mergers are about culture and people, such as Board Members, Staff, and Clients. What insights do you have concerning working with and unifying two Boards?

TA: The best thing we did was to establish a working committee from each organization.

Early on, we arranged a meeting between the two committees. We got to know each other, established a working relationship, and developed a respect for each other. This became our foundation and the mutual respect we had for each other had a trickle-down effect. We took our excitement and comfort with each other back to our respective Boards and that had a very positive impact.

CS: What advice would you give other Board Chairs or Board Members that are considering a merger?

TA: First and foremost, if you don’t have anyone on your Board who has ever been through a merger or acquisition, get help fast. It is always going to be more work than you thought and there is always going to be something that comes up that you didn’t anticipate. Those are the biggest takeaways.

I would also advise the Board to take a close look at other agencies that they can work with and how that relationship will play out. Consider agencies they could partner with to more effectively meet the needs of those served. Seek-out an agency or agencies that have resources that can be shared that may be too expensive to acquire alone.

Industry Trends: The Speed of Decision Making

The amount of time that leaders once had to make decisions has greatly diminished over the last two years.  In today’s on-demand world, CEO’s are now expected to process and react at a much faster pace.

As CEO’s work to keep up with this increase, they must also consider the impact this acceleration has on the working relationship between the Board of Directors and Senior Leadership Team.

In many cases, decisions made by the CEO must first be approved by the Board of Directors. While this is important in regard to checks and balances, which is part of the fiduciary obligation of the Board, and in creating a culture of Teamwork, the outside world is far less understanding and forgiving as they wait on decisions. 

So how do we balance the demands on CEO’s to make swift and sound decisions with the legal oversight and responsibilities of the Board of Directors? 

Solutions may vary but we have 6 tips for empowering CEO’s to make decisions while ensuring the fiduciary obligations of the Board are being met:

  • Be sure your strategic plan reflects the alignment of the Board and Leadership to common decision making

  • Set criteria, such as spending limits and partnership expectations, ahead of time for ease of decision making

  • Create and empower a Board task force to tackle decisions related to specific topics in a more timely manner 

  • Allot for time at each Board meeting to discuss and gain preliminary approval on any potential decision the CEO will need to make on behalf of the organization

  • Change policies that limit non-material decision making

  • Keep honest and open communication to ensure the Board is never caught off guard or surprised by new information 

The pace of decision making and the pressure on leaders to move quickly is positioned to continue to increase. Stay ahead of this trend starting today and determine ways your Board can be adaptive and engaged in this new landscape.

Merger Announcement: Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc. & North Shore Elder Services

Please join us in congratulating our client, Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc. on their merger announcement!

The Boards of Directors for Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc. and North Shore Elder Services have announced their intention to merge these two organizations effective July 1, 2019. 

Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley will remain the sole entity of the merger agreement and continue operations at both current locations in Danvers and Lawrence after the July 1st merger date. Services in the communities of Danvers, Marblehead, Middleton, Peabody, and Salem will continue under the name, North Shore Elder Services. Joan Hatem-Roy will be the Chief Executive Officer for the combined organization.

This merger brings together two strong, highly regarded aging service organizations that have been serving older adults and their families in northeastern Massachusetts for more than four decades. The combined strengths and resources of these two organizations will create many opportunities for innovative and expanded services.

The success of this merger must be credited in large part to the incredible Leadership from both organizations, working together to unite their Staffing Teams and organizational cultures. 

At Curtis Strategy, we feel privileged to have been chosen as the facilitator and advisor for this merger, working collaboratively to bring these organizations together. We would like to thank the Leadership and Staff that we had the opportunity to work with throughout this journey, and we wish them great success as they forge ahead as a united Team. 

Ask the CEO: Jean Phelps, CEO of LifeLinks, Inc.

Recently, Jean Phelps, CEO of LifeLinks Inc. sat down to answer 4 questions that are on the minds of many Human Services leaders today. We would like to thank Jean for her time and her insights and it is such a pleasure for us to be able to share them with you:

CS: What do you think the human service sector will look like in 5-10 years?

JP: There will be fewer agencies in the sector as overall government spending on traditional programs is capped or cut off.  Agencies will merge or collaborate in order to retain market share and some will be forced to close. 

A greater focus will be placed on private pay or insurance coverage for programs that the government used to pay for.  For those programs funded by the government, regulation and oversight will become even more stringent. 

Less services will be provided overall, as a result of more stringent eligibility requirements for consumers.  

There will be more emphasis on families as caregivers with a focus on supports that are provided in the person’s home rather than in a program. This will result in less need for facility-based programs. 

CS: What does an organization succeeding in that sector look like?

JP: It would be nimble, flexible, and willing to try new ways of meeting the needs.

It would be both internally focused on quality, outcomes and measurement and externally focused on partnerships and collaborations that will enhance and augment internal operations.  

It would be well-partnered with government so that, to the extent that it’s possible, they can influence the coming change. 

CS: What major changes do leaders have to start planning for now?

JP: There are major shifts in funding methodologies.  (We were somewhat caught unaware, when we asked for and finally received a rate methodology for funding of state contracts. We didn’t anticipate the ensuing ongoing utilization review process.) 

Our workforce is dwindling in the immediate future there will not enough bodies to do the work required in human service.  As families become caregivers, staff roles will need to evolve to accommodate supporting families and for oversight and monitoring.

Organizations need to evolve to accommodate change quicker.  We will need to invest in and embrace a heavier reliance on technology and related infrastructure and resources to support service recipients and those who support them. 

CS: What advice would you give other leaders operating in today’s eco-system?

JP: Pick your head up and look at what’s going on around you.  Become informed; go to meetings, conferences, read journal articles to know what’s happening in and around your environment. 

Assert yourself as needed with authority and confidence into discussions that are happening about you but without you.  Create your image as a confident expert who brings added value to every conversation. 

View change and risk as opportunities.  Make mistakes and learn from them. 


Jean Phelps’ career in human services management spans almost 40 years.   Her strong skill set in the areas of administration and finance, programming and strategic planning along with expertise on issues related to developmental and intellectual disabilities has been instrumental in guiding organizations to meet their strategic goals.  Jean has been CEO at LifeLinks/ The Arc of Greater Lowell since 2008.  Since then, LifeLinks has expanded and re-envisioned itself, developing a reputation for high quality, innovative and cost-effective programs that support more than 600 individuals and families in the LifeLinks service network. 

Jean is a Regional Representative to the National Council of Executives of the National Arc.  Jean is the immediate past board chair of the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers (ADDP) in Massachusetts, is active in AAIDD and is an AAIDD Fellow.  Jean holds an MSW from Boston University and a BA in Psychology from Clark University.  She lives in Saugus, Massachusetts with a very supportive and patient husband, a Norwegian forest cat and a not so patient Labrador Retriever. Travel (especially to the UK where her oldest son and his wife live), reading and coloring for stress relief fill her minimal free time.

Are Mergers on Your Mind?

Conversations concerning mergers are now occurring across the country more frequently than ever before. We are seeing collaborations and merger discussions across every sector, including healthcare, human services, and even higher education. We believe there is real value in considering mergers as a strategy, but many organizations may not be prepared for the journey. This leaves many to wonder: What needs to be done while considering a merger?

There is no quick answer to this question due to the numerous factors and variables involved. However, we’d like to offer you the following tips from our own merger facilitation experience to help get you started:

  • Engage your Board. The Board of Directors is the single most important stakeholder when considering this type of strategy, so setting a plan for Board engagement and communication is critical. Even more important is making sure that the Board is part of this process from its inception and that the engagement remains consistent. 

  • Your why. What needs are you trying to fulfill in your organization? What value and benefit would a collaboration add? Understanding what your organization needs and how it can be improved, provides the foundation to support assessment and decision making.

  • Build it or Buy it. For those organizations that have reached a size where organic growth is no longer a viable approach, considering mergers as a means of addressing growth strategy, cost savings, quality, or competitiveness is a viable solution.

  • Understand risks and capacity demands. It takes a significant amount of time to build strategy, find candidates, manage the deal, and then integrate once the merger deal is finalized. This could translate to an organization being unable to undertake any other initiatives during this time. Factoring this in to planning avoids the pitfalls of being overburdened or strained.

  • Answer difficult questions first! Once the process is underway, there are several critical questions concerning the surviving entity that need to be answered in order to avoid wasting time: Who will serve as the Executive Team and Board Officers? What will the surviving brand be? Who will serve on the Board of Directors? Answering these questions early on will make decision making much easier as the process moves ahead.

  • Make the tough decisions. Once the merger contract is signed, the implementation process begins. It is during this phase that decisions need to be made around restructuring. These decisions are often very difficult and stressful but, with the right approach, frustrations can be minimized. For our insights on restructuring during an Organization Design project, click here.

  • Mergers are about people. An organization’s culture is formed over time through shared values and mergers begin with the people who make up that culture. In part, a merger is the unification of two cultures, so you’ll need to allow ample time for due diligence. During this phase difficult questions will arise as an in-depth review of financials, governance, human resources, organization charts, and planning documents will occur. This is also a time to become more familiar with people and their abilities through engagement, communication, and feedback.

Considering a merger is a significant decision for any organization but preparedness is key. A successful merger will help an organization eliminate competition, acquire talent, save money, expand geographic impact, and improve quality of service, among other countless benefits. Most importantly, a merger can ensure survival in a highly competitive marketplace and allow organizations to continue the positive impact they have on society.

If you have an interest in learning about merger strategy and discussing whether it is a viable approach for you, please connect with us here.

Top 3 Strategies to Achieve Growth

In today’s world, organizations are finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with the pace of change that is occurring in the marketplace. Growth, sustainability, relevance, and future viability discussions have become commonplace in the Board room and amongst Leadership Teams as organizations strive not only to survive, but to thrive.

Many strategic solutions have emerged from discussions and planning, however, the three that we see most frequently discussed as the means of ensuring future viability are:

    • Get Bigger

    • Get Niche

    • Get Integrated

Get Bigger: The pressure to consolidate, merge, acquire, or partner is being felt by companies across every industry and sector. Increasing size as a growth strategy provides several competitive advantages: 

  • Offer increased salaries in a market where talent acquisition is difficult

  • Achieve scale to obtain the resources and capacity to innovate, make capital investment, and support further consolidation

  • Acquire and implement advanced systems that deepen customer engagement and data acquisition and management

  • Broaden service offerings, becoming a one-stop-shop to increase value to customers

  • Improve quality and capabilities by acquiring organizations that add value by improving service or quality

Get Niche:  For those organizations that lack the desire to increase in size, getting very niche in strategic focus is a necessity. Getting Niche does not mean getting small. Instead it means focusing on your ability to own a market space in a very specific area of service in which you have the ability to:

  • Own the market for the niche space you are operating in with a competitive advantage that others lack

  • Design or invest in technology solutions that allow you to improve service and the customer experience

  • Shift resources, focus, and ability, to differentiate yourself in the market towards the niche area

  • Design a strategy that will scale and grow your ability to be a leader in the niche area of focus

Get Integrated: Organizations are becoming more reliant on partnerships, collaborations, and shared services in order to survive. However, sometimes the “too big to fail” approach does not work. When this is the case, you need to look at becoming “too integrated to fail”. Getting integrated allows companies the ability to:

  • Entrench with partners to deepen relationships and share resources that may be too expensive to acquire alone

  • Bridge relationships to work more effectively for the benefit of the customer

  • Collaborate with multiple partners, strengthening relationships that could result in mergers or new models for growth

  • Share data and information to position yourself in the market across multiple companies serving a single market

Regardless of what strategy your company has decided or decides to embark on, each comes with equal benefits and drawbacks. However, there is one core theme that plays across each strategy, which is the utilization of technology. Technology is allowing us to interact, communicate, service, and work together differently. This concept may seem odd to organizations that consider themselves service providers, but we have entered a time of technological advancement that is disrupting the traditional ways we think about conducting business and providing service. 

If you are interested in learning more about the planning trends we are seeing or which strategy might be best for you and your organization, please connect with us. 

Results, Not Resolutions

Each day is an opportunity to start fresh but there is something cathartic about turning the page on the calendar and starting a new year. With that new beginning about half of us make resolutions, 80% of which, according to U.S. News & World Report, fail by February. Why is it so hard to work on the things we want to change about ourselves and how can we increase the odds of follow through?

Whether we are trying to be more active, stop procrastinating, communicate better, or develop stronger teams there are behaviors that have been formed around these areas of our lives. Self-improvement requires changing behaviors and, we all know, change can be hard. But if we dissect these behaviors and understand how we can form new ones, we can be successful.

Below are some steps we can take to achieve long-term results.

    1. Be realistic. We all have things we can improve upon to become better versions of ourselves, whether personally or professionally, but we can’t change everything at once. Working on too many things at the same time can be overwhelming and cause us to revert to our old ways. Pick one goal as the focus and start there.

    2. Be specific. When we choose something vague to work on, for example to become a better leader, it can be difficult to define what exactly we are looking to change. But by identifying an aspect of leadership we want to work on, such as team development or improved communication, actions can be better targeted to achieve the desired outcome. 

    3. Identify the triggers. If the goal is to stop procrastinating, determine the triggers that prompt us to put off certain tasks. Is it when the task is difficult, overwhelming, or a fear of failure? For example, knowing that difficult tasks overwhelm us, we can change the internal dialog that prevents us from starting and break down the tasks into smaller tasks to make it less overwhelming.

    4. Increase your self-awareness. Often the behavior we wish to change is habitual and we don’t give it much thought. When we know our triggers, steps can be taken to detach ourselves and observe the action we wish to change from an objective point of view. Approaching change with that level of perspective helps increase our self-awareness so we can be deliberate in our actions.

    5. Be patient. Change does not happen overnight. Small, incremental shifts in our behaviors can change patterns and are more sustainable.

    6. Believe in yourself. When we believe that what we are trying to accomplish is within reach, it helps sustain the motivation necessary to fulfill the outcomes we want to achieve.

    7. Expect setbacks. Setbacks will happen because life happens. When we view setbacks as part of the process rather than as a failure, we are less likely to give up. 

    8. Be consistent. When we find what works for us, we should do it again. And again. Repetition creates neuropathways, leading to habit formation. When habits form we don’t need to exert as much effort, letting us focus on other things.

    9. Celebrate success. Results are motivating. We begin to shift psychologically and we see that our efforts are rewarded with, for example, higher productivity, stronger teams, or better collaborations. These rewards can inspire us to make the next change.

Taking these steps can translate to lasting results. The reason why most resolutions fail is because they take conscionable work that requires our focus and energy. It is easy to fall back on old habits when we are tired, stressed, or overwhelmed, which are bound to happen at some point. But when we are aware of how habits form and that almost any behavior can be modified, we can take deliberate steps to make lasting change. 

Self-improvement doesn’t need to coincide with the start of a new year, or any date for that matter, although February 7th seems as good a time as any. If one of your goals for 2019 is to improve your leadership skills or cultivate talent within your teams, please join us on February 7th for our Tier 1 Leader Workshop.

If you are unable to join us for the workshop, please check out our Tier 1 Leader website to find out more about how to improve your leadership skills. Our experienced coaches can guide you in developing the focus, insight, and accountability you need to achieve the consistent results you expect. If you have the desire and willingness to discover your full potential and achieve lasting results, then this is for you! Achieve your goals faster and discover your purpose.

Is There a Common Theme That Unites the CDC Sector?

by Joe Kriesberg, President of MACDC

What does an organization supporting fisherman have in common with one that’s cleaning up a brownfields site along the Housatonic River in Great Barrington?  What does a foreclosure prevention counseling program in Roxbury have in common with a small business microloan fund in the Quaboag Valley?  The answer is these are all programs run by CDCs.  If CDCs are this different and this varied in the services they provide and the communities they serve, is there a common theme or thread that binds them all together?  Are all the CDCs operating from a same “theory of change” implicitly if not explicitly?  Is there a common framework that can be developed to evaluate and measure their impact?

I would like to offer a tentative yes to these questions.  With due respect for the individual qualities and attributes of each CDC, and with recognition that CDCs are not equal in terms of scale, capacity and impact, I do think there is a unifying theory that captures what CDCs do.

The power of the CDC model, I have come to believe, is providing a vehicle for local residents and stakeholders to initiate, implement and steward community change by fostering a virtuous and reinforcing cycle that builds the local civic culture, improves the places where we live and ultimately changes lives.  Let me elaborate.

The first step is to change the way people in a community work together to create a functioning civic culture that includes everyone and allows things to get done. In many places, each constituency has just enough power to stop things, but none have enough power to get things done on their own. This can lead to gridlock. Effective CDCs help people in the public, private and nonprofit sector work together.  They also help address another common problem in the civic life of many communities – the fact that certain groups in the community are not always at the table – lower income people, new comers, linguistic minorities, youth and disabled people are generally less likely to be engaged unless there is an intentional effort made to include them.

As communities begin to come together, the physical environment in a neighborhood or community can begin to change. New housing, businesses, jobs, parks, and infrastructure can provide residents with the stability, safety and access to opportunities that they need to improve their lives. CDCs have the technical, financial and yes, the political capacity to undertake, and/or spur others to undertake, the complex development projects that are needed to create and sustain effective local economies, while also creating safer and healthier environments for local residents. Often, CDCs are able to drive a series of development projects over a period of years to completely transform a neighborhood.

As these neighborhoods improve, people can begin to change their life trajectories. Stable housing enables adults to better compete for jobs or obtain the job training they need. Students with a stable home do better in school and have the ability to pursue their dreams and talents. Safer streets, improved community facilities and new businesses bring new opportunities to local residents. CDCs often complement their placed based work with a wide variety of programs designed to help residents enter the economic mainstream and connect to the regional economy. These programs can include financial education and savings programs, homebuying classes, foreclosure counseling, ESOL and youth programming.  As these efforts help to stabilize people’s lives and they gain entry to the economic mainstream, they are better able to participate in the civic life of their communities. Time and again, we see participants in CDC programs become leaders in their communities, helping to pay it forward for the next family that needs help. And the cycle begins anew.

This approach is validated by the experience of practitioners across the country. More and more academic research is also coming out that documents the ways that improved neighborhoods, stable housing and economic security produce positive outcomes in public heath, educational attainment, public safety, and environmental sustainability.  Going forward, we need to improve our ability to collect meaningful data and evidence that allows us to evaluate the efficacy of this approach, refine our models, build our capacity, and tell the story of our field so we can obtain the resources we need to scale our impact.