Despite a 67 year history of success, changes in the demographics of the community they serve and a cumbersome organizational decision-making process was challenging the viability of Little House. Baby-boomers – the “young-olds” – have different needs and want different options than the traditional “old-old” seniors, but the organization had been slow to respond. How does Little House need to change to address those changes – and how does the PVI organization need to evolve to support these changes? Those were key questions the ACT team needed to address.
A Long History – a Blessing or Curse?
In 1947, a group of forward-thinking women founded Peninsula Volunteers, Inc. (PVI). After initially providing services for returning veterans, PVI soon shifted to providing resources for seniors. That led to the establishment of the first suburban senior center in the US, now formally named Little House, The Roslyn G. Morris Activity Center. Originally a model for senior centers in the country, it was failing to keep up with changes in demographics. Baby-boomers, the “young-olds”, weren’t attracted to the same offerings that traditionally appealed to seniors, and membership was slipping. Lack of attendees and seemingly large financial losses lead PVI to question the future direction of Little House. A consensus-driven culture and a Board made up exclusively of PVI members, coupled with conflicting views of roles and responsibilities between PVI volunteers and staff, had led to indecision and a lack of fresh perspective. In addition, the financial reporting system that opaquely allocated significant amounts of fixed expenses, including large non-cash inferred rental expenses, made understanding the true incremental cost of Little House difficult. These issues led the Board to ask ACT for a team to develop a business plan for Little House.
The ACT Team Digs In
A team of seven ACT volunteers split into three teams focused on the following: an external review of senior centers and relevant literature; an internal review of programs offered, profitability, membership, systems and staffing; and a review of financial/accounting systems and governance. The external team visited and analyzed over a dozen senior centers in the local area. They also talked with relevant City of Menlo Park staff and reviewed literature on the needs of senior centers. The internal team interviewed Little House staff, developed spreadsheets to analyze program profitability and popularity (no easy task given the poor systems in place!), and reviewed operations. The third group analyzed finances, developed a direct cash-based financial analysis and explored governance issues. The teams also interviewed nearly all the Board members. The team generally met bi-weekly in what turned into an intense project. Vigorous discussions helped narrow options around alternate directions.
Alternatives Presented and Narrowed
At the mid-project review, four alternatives were laid out along with the forecast economic consequences of each. Importantly, the team argued that in order to be successful in the long term with any of the alternatives, a shift in governance structure and management responsibility was required. The organization needed to be more nimble and innovative and involve more external community voices to best identify and meet the needs of the “young-olds”. At the meeting, the Board chose one of the alternatives for further work and began digesting the ideas of governance changes.
Final Recommendations Fine Tuned
The team took the Board’s direction and refined their recommendations. Specific implementation plans were developed for the Little House client programming directions. The most sensitive issue was developing a way for the venerable organization to start the process of a shift in governance without upending the entire organization. The team focused on articulating clearer roles and responsibilities for managing Little House specifically and defining an external steering committee which, along with the CEO, would make decisions for the programming and operations of Little House. Final recommendations were made to the full Board who approved the basic recommendations two days later. Their entire membership approved the plans a day after that.
“We were pleased with both the team’s approach to the Little House project and the outstanding process they followed,” said Pat Wilkinson, PVI Board representative. “It was collectively designed to ensure that the primary PVI stakeholders were kept up-to-date throughout the project, in order to ensure maximum buy-in for the action plan that was presented. Their assessment that both business acumen and diplomacy were required for change management was critical to integrate, given PVI’s long-standing traditions and culture.”
“The amount of research conducted by the team was prodigious. It represented the type of knowledge and analysis needed to inform and guide the recommendations, and is the kind of activity that time and resource-strapped non-profits have difficulty accomplishing in their day-to-day operations,” said Karae Lisle, CEO. “The fact that our future implementation will be based on such in-depth research will mean that our choices are informed and rooted in a framework based on real data combined with the team’s wisdom and intelligence. Their consulting counsel can only help to ensure our eventual success.”
An Intensive ACT Team Experience
According to Fred Thiemann, a co-lead with extensive ACT experience, the project was particularly engaging as well as politically sensitive. “It was clear to us early on that no matter what programmatic recommendations we made, without a shift in how Little House was governed, there was a high likelihood of failure. With shifting demographics and uncertainty of needs for the ‘young-olds’, an innovative, almost experimental attitude would be needed for Little House. This meant a change in governance in our view. How to implement this within the framework of the broader organization was a challenging part of our recommendations. It was extremely satisfying to see how whole-heartedly our recommendations were embraced.”