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A Planning Reboot at Community Assistance Center

Working to help the residents of Sandy Springs and Dunwoody with temporary financial assistance, hunger relief, housing assistance, and more, the Community Assistance Center (CAC) serves more than 2,000 families a year. As their last strategic plan was coming to an end, the CAC set out in September 2014 to plan for the next five years— this time, with a new model and a consulting partner to take them through it. The model was the Balanced Scorecard approach, and the partner was GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group.

With the help of Consulting VP Tim Johnson and Senior Consultant Jeanne Drake Ward, Community Assistance Center (CAC) Executive Director Tamara Carrera and Board President Catherine Lautenbacher led the organization through a rigorous process for thinking through the future of the community and the organization, then building a set of goals and objectives rooted in a clear understanding of future needs.

Take a look at CAC's Balanced Scorecard "Strategy Map" here

To get a sense of what it’s like to go through the process we’ve been facilitating for nonprofits across the sector, and what it’s possible to gain from it, Jeanne Drake Ward spoke with the leadership duo just two months after the board voted to approve the finalized strategic plan.

Ward: When we started working together, you were reaching the end of your strategic plan. What was your previous planning process like? What made you decide to change it up this time?

Carrera: Our last plan followed a classic strategic model, but we had been adding a “scorecard” component for several years to help the board keep track of what’s going on, and keep everybody on the same page. But we had to retrofit it to work with the old strategic plan, which was a painful process.

As we approached this round of strategic planning, GCN offered a workshop on strategic planning using the Balanced Scorecard model. We came back from it totally energized: As we heard about the process, lights were turning on in our heads. We asked several consultants to send us plans, and we presented them all to the board, but with a very high recommendation for the scorecard model.

Lautenbacher: I’m looking at our last strategic plan, and it’s just scary, visually: “Section 8.1, Section 8.1.1, Subsection A.” So while we did use it, it wasn’t user-friendly at all. I look at the scorecard plan, and it’s simple, clear, color-coded, it’s got a timeline anyone can understand. It’s an easy-to-use end-product.

Carrera: The scorecard approach takes you through the usual research steps—the SWOT analysis [of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats]—but then makes the findings, and what they mean, clear for everyone through four perspectives: mission, internal processes, financial, and organizational capital. 

Looking at everything in advance helps get those differences out there and understood… [Staff] helped us identify the mission-critical goals to go after, and [the board] concentrated on the way to capitalize them. It was nice to have that push and pull. 

Ward: What surprised you about the process?

Carrera: You really have to understand the model before you start working with it. Here, you put the work in ahead of time, and the rest of the planning becomes a lot easier.

For instance, having to think about measures early on greatly clarified our objectives. I’ve been through other methods where it gets hard to do a process evaluation because your outcome data can be so nebulous.

Lautenbacher: I don’t remember previous plans involving staff as closely. When we all got together ahead of time, we could see that the board had different priorities than the staff. Looking at everything in advance helps get those differences out there and understood. It was illuminating: It showed the board how connected the staff is to the mission, and what it looks like on the front lines. They helped us identify the mission-critical goals to go after, and we concentrated on the way to capitalize them.

It was nice to have that push and pull. Having just one group in the room—either group—would have been short-sighted.

Ward: How did SWOT research and discussion affect the goals you had in mind going into the process? I recall, ahead of the retreat, one board member saying that we’d be fine as long as we arrived at plans for a new, larger headquarters. How did that goal change?

Lautenbacher: I don’t think there was anything in the external analysis that surprised us. We were already talking about the changing demographics and the housing situation, how many people are using our services, and what services they need to move them forward—but we just touched on them in terms of our finances or capacity. What this process allowed us to do is really think about the implications of these variables for our clients and plan for the future.

Carrera: We would have to be blind not to see that Sandy Springs is changing dramatically—that a lot of the low-income housing is going to disappear, but not the people who need it—and we had been moving toward the question of which CAC services will be most relevant. Basic services will still be needed, but as housing disappears, and the need increases, the central issue for our clients becomes access. We need to be able to serve people where they are, and to do that, our goal changed from a new central headquarters to becoming more mobile.

But we also want families to move out of an unstable situation, which means moving in the direction of solutions rather than band-aids: skill-building programs, individual service plans, and workforce development for people at all levels, efforts we started about seven years ago. That led to a goal addressing clients’ need for more and better income opportunities.

Ward: How were you able to keep the staff as well as the board enthusiastic for this work?

Carrera: When you say “strategic planning,” the initial response is, “Do I really have to do this again?” But once you start going through the process—the questionnaires in the SWOT analysis, the meetings with staff and supporters—the act of thinking through these issues is engages you. The process starts a conversation about the future, and how we can shape it—and I think that’s exciting for anybody! 

So people started getting engaged naturally. By the time we went on our full-day retreat, with all board and staff, we were ready to work. By the end of the day, we had our key future assumptions, goals, objectives, and we were all on the same page. We may not have been in agreement over everything, but we all understood the process, what was happening next, and had a common language to talk about the future—and that engages people, too.

I felt it in the staff particularly. Suddenly, people were saying things like, “How do we move this outcome?” and “I’m not sure whether this is an assumption or a goal.” And because everyone can look at the plan and understand it, it’s no longer up to me to remind people to make sure something gets done. Now that we’re not getting caught up in the day-to-day deliverables, people tell me how much better they’re liking staff meetings. 

Going through this process, [staff] saw what 20 years of really good data means when you’re trying to decide your programs’ future… It may not be easy to collect or enter data, but when they see the reports, they say, “That’s what I’m contributing to? That’s worth it.”

Ward: You also mentioned to me that metrics has been a bigger topic of conversation.

Carrera: Before, Program Director Doris Pereira and I were the only ones thinking about numbers. Now, it’s clear to everybody how important it is to put good data in now, so we can make good decisions later. Going through this process, they saw what 20 years of really good data means when you’re trying to decide your programs’ future and where your resources are going to go. It may not be easy to collect or enter data, but when they see the reports, they say, “That’s what I’m contributing to? That’s worth it.” Metrics make the everyday work feel relevant, and that motivates people too.

Ward: What would you tell someone at a fellow nonprofit considering a Balanced Scorecard strategic planning process?

Lautenbacher: You’ve got to commit! You can’t do it halfway. But be flexible: if a certain tool doesn’t make sense for you, don’t force it.

Carrera: Get familiar with the Balanced Scorecard approach, and how it works for nonprofits, ahead of time. Know that this is not a fast process: You need to dedicate enough time to digest the information and allow everyone to participate. That could be weeks or months, but you have to be patient and allow the process to work.

View CAC's Balanced Scorecard "strategy map" here 
Contact our team at [email protected]

Jeanne Ward Drake is a senior consultant at GCN, specializing in strategic planning, and Marc Schultz is contributing editor at GCN.


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2.04.22 | Online