Nonprofits

Let's Put the Strategy Back in Strategic Planning!

The days of Strategic Plans comprised of 5-10 goals that address market shifts are over. Organizations and Teams are stretched thin and with limited resources there simply isn’t enough capacity and bandwidth to implement and drive such all-encompassing plans.

Instead, initiative fatigue sets in and organizations find themselves on track to accomplish few goals, or worse yet, none at all. The strategic plan loses creditability, implementation comes to a halt, and organizational advancement and culture is negatively impacted. 

To avoid these pitfalls, leaders need a more focused strategy, with 2-3 targeted goals that, when accomplished, will have the greatest impact on relevance and sustainability. While the process of narrowing goals can be challenging, isolating a smaller number of major initiatives will keep employees focused and help drive transformational change. 

In collaborating with countless organizations over the years, we have seen first-hand the implementation and execution success that organizations achieve when narrowing the focus to a smaller number of key initiatives. 

It’s time to create more carefully designed strategic plans. Plans that are focused, clear, and prioritized around 2-3 change or transformation efforts that when implemented, will dramatically increase the probability of organization-wide success. 

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.