Strategy Design

Strategic Planning Tips for Staff & Teams:


Get hyper-focused both individually and as a team to increase the ability to produce desired outcomes and staff morale.  There are a variety of approaches that staff teams and managers can utilize to improve their management capabilities and outcomes. 

The Job Post: 

Define the purpose of each job function, prioritize the work, and standardize each function across the organization. This will ensure everyone is operating from a place of common understanding and alleviate workload fatigue. 

Process Improvement: 

Define and build understanding of existing processes. The more managers and staff define the existing processes, the more they will be able to improve or change them for better service delivery or operational functionality.

Data Collection: 

Technology is affording us the ability to capture information and data and, perhaps in the very near future, the ability to monetize the data. In order to capture data, senior leadership will need to provide the proper systems, but then it will be up to managers and staff to determine what data is relevant to producing outcomes for clients.


In order to generate data, improve processes, and ensure staff are focused on what is important, teams need to first define what types of outcomes they want to generate and for whom. Only then can the discussion begin around what data points feed those outcomes and how will operations need to change to achieve them.

Strategic Planning Tips for Senior Leadership:

Strategic Focus: 

Focus on the big picture, meaning organization-wide initiatives. Capacity is critical to successful implementation so focusing on a smaller number of large initiatives will achieve the greatest impact. 

Structural Alignment: 

Be sure to align organizational structure to strategy. In order to drive change and alignment to strategy, there are instances when organizational structure must be fundamentally shifted. While this can create tension and challenges, it will ultimately create a solid foundation for continued growth and future viability. 

Staffing Talent: 

Develop a talent acquisition strategy for hiring from outside the organization. The process of fulfilling strategy can, at times, require organizations to bring in talent that cannot be found internally. Introducing new talent, which brings different skills or management style, can disrupt or generate change in organizational culture. Having a comprehensive strategy for integrating new talent in to an organization is critical to implementation success. 


Consistently assess whether the right systems are in place to manage from and to deliver outstanding service. The systems we use to govern operations have the ability to alter behavior and shift workflow into new directions. The advancement of technology means these systems are constantly evolving 

Resource Allocation: 

Move resources to areas of strategic investment to ensure proper utilization and return. With many of the big paradigm shifts happening in every sector and industry, designing strategic plans can involve a significant amount of risk taking with new business models or services. Establishing the proper utilization of resources will help ensure investments are forecasted and understood thus increasing the speed of decision making

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. 

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.

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. 

Creating Wins & Community Success Through Mergers

By Anne B. Colwell, CEO
Cape Cod Child Development

“Merger” and “Acquisition” seem to be scary words in the nonprofit world, but invigorating words in the for-profit arena.  Could it be the mission-driven nonprofit world is more focused on a smaller, targeted service?  How about the theory that a for-profit organization is just simply more competitive and wants to grow revenue?  Nonprofits are seen as softer, kinder entities, and acquisitions give the impression of negativity and loss.  For-profits may be viewed more as a business model that acts in a manner that drives profit, sometimes at the expense of human capital.  Perhaps the types of professionals that lead organizations tend to fall into two general motivational categories—intrinsically and extrinsically valued.  There, of course, is no actual clear answer—only the remaining question about why the concept of creating more greatness by combining resources has not taken hold in the nonprofit world in the same way as in the for-profit world.

As the CEO of a nonprofit on a 70 mile peninsula with two small islands (good guess—Cape Cod!) and over 1,000 nonprofit agencies, it is clear we can see the opportunities for (nonprofit) mergers and acquisitions.  Our agency is one of the largest nonprofits in the region, especially within the child and family services sector.  Roughly two-thirds of the Cape’s nonprofits provide services to children and families with significant overlap of services and missions.  All of these hundreds of nonprofits have CEOs/Executive Directors and most have financial/human resources management, marketing, development, and administrative support staff—all functioning outside the direct services provided to clients.  Many of these agencies have outstanding leadership and staff but, conversely, many do not.  Many are utilizing effective technologies, evidence-based practices, and good operational excellence processes but, in reality, many probably are not.  There is only one fair reality when we look from afar and in general terms—the total amount of money available is not being spent in the most effective ways.  We know this by just simply looking at the administrative costs of running so many nonprofits in a relatively small geographical footprint.

Let’s take a closer look at the nonprofit world.  In any given year, there will be a dollar figure that accounts for all the financial resources and funding opportunities for nonprofit entities.  It is a sizable figure, relatively speaking, whether it is international, national, regional, or community-based.  At the end of every year (fiscal or calendar), it represents the total investment in the nonprofit service-based sector—regardless of the source of revenue.  If one considers the holistic approach, it is very logical to want to combine all nonprofit revenue streams into one number and understand the value of what that revenue truly means to a community or larger scope, as appropriate.

When we think about potential mergers and acquisitions, we must first consider a collective impact mindset.  If we merge, will it create more services, better quality, enhanced employee satisfaction, improved productivity, or an enriched customer experience?  We seek a win, win, win situation (triple wins), meaning it is a win for all agencies, a win for our agency, and, most importantly, a win for our children and families.  We know we can create more operational efficiency and lower administrative costs but there also must be a mission-driven connection to helping the same demographic.

Not all mergers and acquisitions are losing propositions for human capital—people!  In fact, many mergers and acquisitions provide far greater opportunities for growth and intellectual stimulation.  Although there may or may not be some transition of leaders and staff, in my experience, the newly merged entities realize new outcomes, different challenges, and professional growth that could never have occurred in the previous agency.

As nonprofit agencies struggle with Executive Director Transitions, reduced funding/revenue, and increasing administrative burdens, the answer may well lie in a merger or acquisition.  Yes, it is daunting, scary, and unfamiliar to navigate a nonprofit merger, but the benefits can be dramatic for a community.  The greater ability to provide much-needed food, housing, health, education, clothing, referrals, and all types of services to children, adults, and families can dramatically outweigh the doubt to move forward.

If mergers are not possible, another great option to consider is strengthening strategic partnerships, shared services, and collaborations.  Why not combine efforts, space, and talent if you serve the same demographic in the same area?  Identify the cross-over points of services, how each agency brings unique products/services to the community need and work together to provide more that is similarly missioned.  There may be nothing more impressive to donors, funders, and foundations than to see nonprofit agencies working smarter together.

In the nonprofit world, we are definitely “better together” and “stronger united”—let’s all consider an approach going forward, whether a merger, an acquisition, a strategic partnership, or a simple collaboration, that can change our communities … the world is waiting!

Business Model of Higher Education: The Differentiated and Integrated Strategy

The landscape of higher education is rapidly changing. One thing that is becoming vital to competitive positioning is the ability to build partnerships and collaborations with businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, military, K-12 schools, and foreign entities for the purpose of designing an integrated education model. 

The business model of higher education is shifting and to remain relevant in the future will require, redefining the value proposition of todays education model and the leadership to challenge archaic thinking. The model of the future will be centered on two core elements: 

  1. The ability to differentiate based on an area(s) of specialty or niche programming
  2. The ability to integrate niche programming by restructuring internal operations (academics, careers, and development offices) and building strategic relationships with external partners and employers.

Colleges and Universities will differentiate on their brand or their program niche in the market. Harvard University has a premier brand name, but will that be enough in the future? Is the value proposition of higher education shifting to career readiness and ability to secure employment? If that is the case, then is it more valuable to enroll in a university that has a world-class reputation for an industry specific focus or program. 

For example, can a small university in Vermont compete with Harvard on brand? No! But can they differentiate themselves in a way that allows them to have the #1 cyber security program in the country? Yes! This is an example of how schools that do not have a marquee name must compete to survive and grow.

Determining how and where to compete in this global education market is going to mean the difference between being relevant in 10 years or going extinct. Small to mid-size colleges and universities can not compete with the Harvard, Yale, and Stanford brands. However, given the shift in the markets, the future will base the value of education on career readiness or job preparation within a niche area, which allows room to compete based on niche market focus.

What is the strategic relevance of your careers department? Where is it positioned in your strategic plan in terms of importance and budget allocation? We want colleges and universities to become too integrated to fail. Integration means entrenching your school with employers and external partners around your niche programming to build a model that adds value in multiple areas.

If the value proposition is moving away from a degree and more towards career readiness, that will impact the way universities are organized and structured. Careers departments become strategic partnership departments bringing jobs, internships, externships, curriculum changes, corporate training, and multiple levels of relationships. The challenge will be to bridge all external relationships to internal departments. Even the development office will benefit, as a school becomes more of an integrated partner with outside organizations, the level of corporate giving and philanthropy should increase in parallel with the value of the programming and relationship.

The business model of higher education is ready to transform and will require strong leadership to drive those changes. Strategic planning is a great way to move a university towards the future, but part of that process must be designing strategy for differentiation and integration.


Our firm has had the privilege of working with over 100 nonprofits organizations; from universities to homeless shelters, and everything in-between. There are three common lessons we repeatedly see in working with clients that we would like to share.

The board is the group that approves the strategic direction of the organization and then holds the CEO accountable for fulfilling the plan. Boards must also develop a plan for themselves to ensure they have the capabilities, resources, expertise, and talent to achieve future strategy. If the CEO is held accountable for executing the strategic plan, the board chair and board members must be held accountable for having the right people to best support the strategic direction. If both board and staff are not moving forward together, then the board could hold operations back because they can't keep up with the pace of change. Make sure the board has a plan to evolve too!

Technology has been a major disruptor to big business and has recently started to chip away at nonprofits of all shapes and sizes. Higher education is under attack from rising costs and deepening discount rates, while students ability to pay is declining. Other nonprofit sectors are experiencing major disruption too. Soon human service organizations will be under attack from: sharing technology & automation, shrinking federal & state funding, and massive overhead. Many nonprofit sectors are about go through dramatic shifts in their service models. The way and manner in which services are delivered is changing now and organizations need to be proactive in designing viable business models.

The most important relationship in any nonprofit organization is the one that exists between the Board Chair and CEO. The most effective and powerful nonprofit organizations are the ones that have this power team sharing one-mind and one-mission. There are important questions to ask in developing this critical relationship: Does the Chair understand their role and how to move & develop the board? Does the CEO understand how to manage and lead strategic change? This team of two needs to ensure three things are happening to be effective:

  1. Both need to be candid about expectations for each other. Each must know their role and have defined boundaries together. 
  2. Both must define the current situation (reality) of the organization to make sure they are operating on the same playing field. This means facing the brutal facts when making decisions for the organization.
  3. Both have to establish a clear way to communicate on a frequent and consistent basis. Speaking one week before the board meeting to create an agenda is not enough. Boards must be forward thinking, constantly planning, and continuously focused on developing governance. In order to achieve this alignment the CEO and Chair must always work together to organize their actions. Each has a different role to play in the partnership for ensuring a viable organization, and communication is a must.

We have learned many lessons from our clients and the three principles above are the most important factors for ensuring success, viability, and a healthy organization. 

Are Customers redefining your business model?

Are Customers redefining your business model without your knowledge? Non-profit business models are in the midst of a massive shift and most organizations are not prepared for the imminent changes to come. Higher Ed is an excellent example.

Higher Ed has been focused on producing degrees in a liberal arts setting because that is what academia has always done to prepare students. That historical mindset does not satisfy current demand from customers who have more power than ever before.

  • Students want to graduate with good paying jobs in their fields of interest
  • Parents want their kids to obtain jobs that will launch their professional careers.
  • Employers want to hire graduates with good skills, character, and the ability to hit the ground running.

All three customers have one thing in common - they are career focused.

Historically, we could argue that students and parents were degree focused; and that it mattered more for a student to earn a degree verses obtain a job but those days are over. In response, the business model of higher education is shifting its focus to fulfilling career objectives.

This seemingly small shift in end-results drastically challenges the current business model, culture, and philosophy of higher education. Many college majors could be misaligned with the future, which is why we are starting to see a rise in “centers of excellence.” These centers are ways to build educational programming geared towards career placement and employer partnerships. But the evolution of the Higher Ed business model is happening too slowly and many schools in their race to relevancy will fail because they were not able to change quickly enough to meet this new type of demand.

Bottom line – shifts in customer demands/expectations are forcing shifts in business models across all nonprofit sectors, not just higher education. Crafting strategic plans, evolving business models, and successfully implementing changes will be the key to future relevance and viability. 

Designing Transformational Strategy

Last month, our Nonprofit Strategy Report focused on the importance of developing engaged trustees for the board. In this month's report we are going to look at how to design transformational strategy. These are the three major levers that nonprofit CEO's need to be focused on consistently to break the status quo:

  • Developing Engaged Trustees
  • Designing Transformative Strategy
  • Developing Staff

Transformation is about creating a future that does not exist. It is about thinking differently and outside the scope of the existing business model. Designing Transformative Strategy is to look beyond what the organization is currently doing, and determining new ways of achieving the mission and goals.

There is a great saying, "If you do what you have always done, you will get what you have always gotten." This means that breaking the status quo requires bold thinking and action. It also requires strong leadership! 

There are three key steps to designing transformational strategy:

Step 1 - Assess

Gain a deep understanding of the business model of the organization. It is critical to know what drives the economic engine, who the real customer is, the value proposition to those customers, and the partnerships that support success.

This assessment will allow leaders to better understand their organization and how new ideas will impact operations. This will increase the ability to implement change with the staff in a pragmatic way.

Step 2 - Engage

Identify stakeholders internally and externally to the organization that will be engaged in the strategy design process. Stakeholders can include: Trustees, staff, donors, foundations, "customers", local or state government, other nonprofits, partners, vendors, and other important individuals or organizations. 

We engage stakeholders to understand where they see opportunities and threats for the organization. This is similar to crowd sourcing ideas from large audiences. The CEO should not sit in a room and try to think up a strategy or vision. This should be done through the feedback and insights of the stakeholders interviewed.

When we engage stakeholders to be part of the strategy design journey, we are enrolling them in the future success of the nonprofit organization. By doing this, we will have created ownership and buy-in to the future direction. The strategy design is co-created with multiple viewpoints, ideas, opinions, and different ways of thinking.

Here is an example of why engaging stakeholders is so important: Did you ever have a job performance evaluation? Performance evaluations can be done by a supervisor, which is the feedback and evaluation from just one individual. Now compare that to the different levels of perspective you would receive with a 360 degree feedback from your supervisor, peers, colleagues, and subordinates. The benefit of the 360 degree evaluation is going to be far more valuable because it is from multiple levels of perspective and from more than one source.

The same value can be attributed by engaging multiple levels of stakeholders during the strategy design process. This allows ideas to be shared that may become the organizations next strategic area of focus. It also generates a significant amount of momentum when transitioning from plan design to implementation. That momentum can help drive the change and transformation needed for ensure success.

Step 3 - Assemble

Once the assessment of the business model has been done and the stakeholders have been engaged, now it is time to put the data and ideas together. What we are looking for during this step is the ideas and opportunities that align and corroborate from all the interviews and data points. The more the feedback corroborates the more relevant and applicable the idea(s) becomes to the strategic direction of the organization. 

The future strategy design of the organization should be generated through the stakeholder feedback. This creates transformational ideas to assemble into a plan for the leadership team to implement and achieve.

Next Steps

Having a transformative strategy will inspire the staff towards new thinking, but there must be a solid staffing team to deliver the results. Developing a Staff Team is the #3 lever to success, and will be the subject of our July 2015 Nonprofit Strategy Report.