Testimonial: United Way of Central Ohio
Imagine working for an organization that represents the hopes and ambitions of thousands of individual investors and employers who want to make a real impact by improving people’s lives and shaping a stronger community. That’s not all! This same organization is a catalyst, a convener, a collaborator and a change agent. Their work brings people together to determine the root causes of the community’s most challenging problems and does whatever it takes to achieve lasting results. Sound like a challenge? Michelle Vander Stouw is Director of Health at United Way of Central Ohio. Recently she called in Leadership Strategies to spearhead their strategic planning session.
LSI: What critical issues were facing United Way that caused you to seek a solution with Leadership Strategies?
Vander Stouw: “We hadn’t scheduled a strategic planning retreat for a while, and with our new CEO having been on board for almost two years, it seemed the perfect time to gather our board of trustees, take a look at the organization and determine what steps needed taking in order to keep United Way of Central Ohio strong going into the future. We knew Michael Wilkinson of Leadership Strategies because he was also facilitating other United Way sessions around the country. In addition, a fundamental change in United Way’s philosophy was taking place. Across the country the organization was moving from being a ‘fund raiser’ system to being more of a ‘community impact’ organization. We had already completed the 1st phase of this change almost 10 years ago and now it was time for us to go to next level.”
LSI: There’s something unique about your area of the country, isn’t there?
Vander Stouw: Yes! Central Ohio is one of the most caring communities in the nation not only in terms of donating money but also in the giving of their time and resources. Many other communities don’t have this kind of culture. We have 1.2 million people living in this community and one of the interesting and wonderful things about our area is its very diverse population. Central Ohio has one of the largest Somali populations in the country along with growing Hispanic, Asian, Vietnamese, and eastern Asian Indian populations. Our numerous college campuses, major banks, insurance companies and other service industries attract international professionals.
LSI: The people involved in United Way’s strategic planning sessions are unique too, aren’t they?
Vander Stouw: They certainly are. One of the things I haven’t mentioned is the United Way’s partnership with the agencies that provide services to the people in our community. In other words, we’re unique among other fundraisers in that our agency partners sit right alongside us at the strategic planning table! Not only were they present at the strategic planning retreat, their agency representatives serve on our board and vision councils. This way we aren’t making decisions that impact the agencies we serve in a vacuum; rather, these agencies provide meaningful insight and input that affects decisions the United Way is making. Rather than say to our agency partners, “I’ll take your comments under advisement,” we make changes and adaptations to our work as it is being created, based on their input.
LSI: What challenges did you face having such a diverse group of cultures and ethnicities at the same planning table?
Vander Stouw: Because we are a collaboration, public policy and investment network, we try to have very diverse representation from all walks of life, including many racial and ethnic backgrounds. There are folks with many diverse backgrounds on our committees. That’s a good thing. Of course having such diverse group dynamics makes it challenging to facilitate some of these meetings-you face lots of cultural issues that make how you facilitate pivotal to the success of the outcome. There are appropriate and inappropriate actions and ways of speaking that can be present in the room at any given time.
It’s quite an interesting dynamic having folks present in the room who are going to be directly impacted by these decisions and who are also involved throughout the process itself. One of the tenets of Leadership Strategies is the importance of communication-this tenet is also valued within the United Way. Michael Wilkinson truly listened to everyone’s input. He is a master at knowing how to listen and doesn’t rephrase things in his own way but instead reframes them in the words of people in the room-something we strive to practice at the United Way as well. It’s not always an easy thing to do.
LSI: What stood out about Leadership Strategies facilitation of your strategic planning session?
Vander Stouw: One of things going into the session that we were concerned about was whether or not the structure of the agenda could engage board members in group thinking, creative solutions and enable them to really get at the heart of who we are as an organization. Another hurdle was getting them to provide guidance and make decisions on how to proceed moving forward. Michael’s facilitation skills shined through; he created excellent participation with the board members by using lots of hands-on activities, small group interactions and large group discussions. It was so successful, that the board requested a second meeting to continue the dialogue! He masterfully created an atmosphere where everyone in the room not only wanted to roll up their sleeves and do the work-they requested to add another day!
Both sessions we conducted were intentionally structured. Many of our board members are very high level executives in our community who are used to dealing in policy-making environments. Michael Wilkinson brought them to a place where they not only thought about policy but also about what specifically needed to be done in the future in order to execute those policies. The board went in depth with how to make this happen.
LSI: How did this strategic planning session impact United Way?
Vander Stouw: This session helped us define what community impact means to Central Ohio. Our board holds monthly, hour-long meetings and sixty minutes does not always allow enough time for the group to get down to the nitty-gritty planning level. The board definitely appreciated the energy Michael and Leadership Strategies brought into the room-the techniques and framing questions he utilized were not only helpful in this retreat but carried through to subsequent follow-up meetings
LSI: What were your goals coming into this session?
Vander Stouw: The objective of the session was to gain consensus on the definition of community impact, determine the top strategic issues to address over the next few years and define the role of the board in the strategic planning process we expect to follow.
LSI: Was this goal achieved?
Vander Stouw: Yes. This session created the local definition of community impact for Central Ohio. Michael facilitated the process of connecting what community impact means locally to the broader United Way definition. Four specific areas needed to be further developed by the strategic planning committee along with developing a very specific plan for: developing focus, resource development, collaboration and accountability. The question for future meetings became, ‘How are we going to get more effective at collaboration, more fully develop our focus, improve our resource development and achieve accountability?’
We completed the strategic planning process in June; out of that came a formal written plan with a very specific timeline and steps we needed to take as an organization. I’m proud to say we are moving forward in all four areas. There’s a major effort underway regarding the focus of our work around community impact. This foundational piece influences everything else. Change is difficult for any organization or system -including us and the agencies we fund-however the end result will be better for our community. That is what we’re all working toward together.
LSI: Did any surprises that came out of the session?
Vander Stouw: I don’t think when we went into the meeting that anyone expected the board to say, ‘We want you to narrow your community impact focus to only four areas.’ We expected greater focus, but not specifically narrowing to just 4 areas. Their request provided an interesting and difficult challenge in order to achieve the board’s vision. Previously whenever we would examine the role of the human services work we support, it was traditionally very broad, with extra emphasis on particular focus areas. Now the board was requesting we take all our energy and put it into these four focus areas, period. We knew this would be a challenging new way of doing things.
LSI: How did Leadership Strategies improve work performance?
Vander Stouw: “Often when you take a board on a strategic planning retreat, what happens during the session stays separate from the day to day running of the business. This was not the case. What came out of the strategic planning session with Leadership Strategies close to one year ago has impacted conversations every week since then. We regularly reference the reports that were generated from the meetings and use them as the foundation for our future planning.”