The James House Plan Approved; Lessons Learned

Last night, the board of The James House (TJH) officially approved the strategic plan we developed over the course of the past seven months. But it's not the end of my journey with the Hopewell-based nonprofit focused on providing services to those affected by sexual or domestic violence; in fact,the hard work is yet to come.Last night, the board of The James House (TJH) officially approved the strategic plan we developed over the course of the past seven months. But it's not the end of my journey with the Hopewell-based nonprofit focused on providing services to those affected by sexual or domestic violence; in fact, the hard work is yet to come. Thanks to the forward-thinking (and generous) approach of The Cameron Foundation, which has funded my work with TJH since April, I'll spend the next year helping the board and staff of TJH implement the plan. I could pretend that I designe d and delivered the perfect strategic process for The James House, but the reality is that this was the first strategic process I have managed from start to finish. And while the board and I feel that the final strategic plan is a solid and ambitious road map for the organization, I stumbled a few t imes along the way, and I missed some important opportunities. The good news is two-fold: The James House has a good plan to guide their growth over the next 2-5 years, and I learned a raft of lessons that are already helping me to implement better strategic processes for other Floricane clients. The Plan One of the most exciting aspects of the planning process for me was the willingness of The James House to take some time to step back and look at the big picture. The organization does important work in the human services arena and serves residents of eight cities and counties in south-central Virginia -- a region facing significant growth with the expansion of Fort Lee, and other demographic trends. Three of the most important aspects of the plan involve the board of TJH, the organization's future development/fundraising needs, and the role of the staff in the plan's development and implementation. The James House has been around for several decades, but it has just been in the last seven years or so that it has reached a level of service, stewardship and competency to be seen as a professional and reliable resource for individuals affected by the trauma of sexual or domestic violence. The board that helped move TJH forward in recent years has been committed to the mission, but in need of a strategic vision, clearer roles and expectations for its members, and new members. During the first six months of 2010, one of our primary strategic tasks will involve the creation of a larger board that is ready to take the lead on strategy, governance and fundraising. But the board recognizes it can't do it alone. Which is why we're also focusing in the near-term on funding, finding and hiring a new development director who can play an active role in supporting the board's fundraising work; strengthening relationships with key donors, businesses and community leaders across the eight service areas; and doubling up on the organization's already aggressive grant-writing efforts. And it's why the staff has been involved in the process from the get-go. And why the staff will be partnering with the board as we work to implement key strategic outcomes. A final, personal and and important note on the process: I didn't do it alone. It wasn't just the staff and board of The James House who helped get this plan to the finish line. One of the most important players in the process has been Kristen Kaplan, a Richmond-based consultant (and one of the founders of Hands On Greater Richmond). Kristen not only provided me with some much-needed guidance and confidence early on, but she provided great perspective throughout the planning process. Oh, she also pretty much single handedly research and wrote the development portion of the plan. I really would have struggled without her support and expertise. The Lessons Without going into great detail, the lessons I learned in this process have been significant. I'll bullet a few key learnings below: * I don't do my best work alone. Former coworkers, pick yourselves off the floor. I get it for real now. Being a consultant is inherently lonely work. The smartest decision I made early on was to recruit smart people to partner with me where possible. I couldn't have found a better partner for this project than Kristen. In addition to everything described above, Kristen kept me accountable. And she served as an important reminder of what it feels like to work with someone I like, trust and respect. * Pacing and scheduling are important. The smartest thing I did with The James House work was create a block of time I called the "discovery phase" of the project. It involved research, an assessment of board and staff perspectives, and one-on-one discussions with each board and staff member. But because we didn't schedule key blocks of work in advance, we lost a lot of ground when that process moved to its conclusion and we couldn't schedule the second phase. This stop/go process continued throughout the summer, and it was largely a result of my poor planning on the scheduling front. * Research, research, research. Yes, Kristen did a ton of research. I should have done more, and I should have done it in the first month. Reading through existing documents, delving into demographic and other regional research, meeting with other external stakeholders -- all critical work that I didn't focus on soon enough. It didn't sandbag the process, but I think the plan would have been significantly better if I had spent more time on the front-end really learning the nuts-and-bolts of the organization and the communities it served. That all said, the plan is done and implementation has started. I'll be meeting with a team from the board in a few weeks to matrix out a work plan for the strategic recommendations, and we'll get rolling. The James House was my first long-term client under the Floricane banner, and I'm excited to continue building on a great working relationship.