Meet Post Award Finalist: A-SPAN

A-SPAN provides life-sustaining services for Arlington’s street homeless. Their mission is to secure permanent housing for one of Arlington’s most vulnerable populations through outreach and relationships built on trust and respect. More than 1,000 homeless persons – 1,636 last year – rely on A-SPAN's for basic services, like shelter, meals, clothing and medical care. A-SPAN works with clients to help them move past homelessness through housing. They also serve as first responders: When concerned citizens see a person on the streets and are unsure how to help, they call A-SPAN to provide the immediate, responsive care that can mean the difference between life and death for a person in crisis.

Q & A with A-SPAN

1. What does this award mean for you and your organization?

The Washington Post Award would be a monumental achievement for A-SPAN at a time when we are on the cusp of realizing one. The Post Award would bring added publicity and recognition to A-SPAN as we transition to a year-round Homeless Services Center – a first of its kind facility in the DC Metro Area – on June 8, 2015. This achievement delivered by A-SPAN’s current management team and board culminates over 20 years of work by the organization and its advocates. The Homeless Services Center will deliver the best results for our clients in the most efficient, cost-effective manner for local government and the taxpayer base.

However, the cost of operating a year-round Homeless Services Center will be far greater than what it costs A-SPAN to operate a five-month Emergency Winter Shelter. As we carry out the type of major fundraising efforts needed to cover the difference, the recognition the award brings and the seal of approval from the Center for Nonprofit Advancement Selection Committee should be considered vital to our efforts. It serves to validate all that we have accomplished and all that we strive to do. It will help our donors realize that their investment with A-SPAN is well-managed, and well-placed. A-SPAN has a strong media presence and development ability primed to maximize the notoriety the award brings to an organization. The Washington Post Award would serve as the catalyst for bringing our groundbreaking work to the region’s attention.

2. How has the application process benefited your organization? What have you learned through the application process?

The Washington Post application process has benefitted our organization since the process requires applicants to conduct an intensive and exhaustive appraisal of its management practices. In order to prepare our initial and all subsequent responses, we established a committee comprised of the President/CEO, Board Chair, two other board members and the Director of Marketing and Grants tasked with completing each round. To do so successfully, it required us as an organization to ask the tough questions, and respond to them honestly.

The application process caused us to conduct an internal review in order to capture what we do well already, and to determine can be done better. What is worthy of the award? What areas can be improved? What processes are strong enough to be considered areas of excellence and worthy of sharing not only with the Center for Nonprofit Advancement Selection Committee, but with our constituents and organizations that we regularly collaborate with? We understand that the Washington Post Award and its application process serves as a beacon for all nonprofits. For us as an organization to aspire to be the standard-bearer, we must diligently assess every internal process, impart what we learn through the process to other area nonprofit management teams, and to understand how the information we share can affect real change.

After having gone through this review process as part of our submission to the Center for Nonprofit Advancement, we now intend to institutionalize the review process itself. In this way, review of our management processes now reflects the culture that the management team itself helped to create: one of transparency, openness to critique, and tireless dedication to continually improving. This approach has helped us get to the point where we believe ourselves worthy of the Washington Post Award. By having gone through the process, we have learned that we want this review to be part of the way we conduct business moving forward.

3. Describe one management best practice of which you are particularly proud.

The management best practice that A-SPAN is most proud of is the skills matrix developed and used by the Governance Committee to determine board members to recruit. Most organizations fall into the trap of letting the CEO identify prospective new board members, which can be problematic since it enables the CEO to reinforce his or her position by recruiting people that they know and like. You do not get honest oversight in this manner. Similarly, with a relatively open process where board members invite friends and colleagues to serve on the board, the process becomes self-selective. If most members of the board are from one geographic area or populace, incoming board members tend to be from this same area or group. This type of recruiting process does not reinforce diversity, or necessarily bring the requisite skills needed for a board to be fully functioning and effective.

The current practice of using the skills matrix to facilitate our board recruiting process asks this simple question: what skills do we lack moving forward? For instance, we are preparing for two senior communications board members to rotate off, and know that we need to recruit from the field of communications to ensure that this skill set is represented in the board moving forward. By having a balanced board, we ensure that all the areas needed for comprehensive and effective oversight are covered, including communications, marketing, development, governance, finance, and mission. Use of the skills matrix facilitates this.

4. What advice would you offer for other nonprofit leaders/organizations striving for excellence in nonprofit management?

The advice that A-SPAN would offer to other nonprofit leaders striving for excellence in management is that the strategic plans organizations dedicate so much time and resources to develop really need to be the driver for everything that the organization does. A-SPAN’s strategic plan is used throughout our organization as a dynamic, living “compass.” It does not just sit on the shelf but guides our operational planning, budgeting, and management. Just as importantly, it keeps us focused on our programmatic objectives and strategies, as well as our priorities in development, communications, finance, and governance.

The strategic plan is the focus of each board retreat where we ensure support and understanding of our mission, vision, goals and objectives, strategies, timeframes, and roles and responsibilities. The plan is maintained on an ongoing basis by the board which updates the document as needed to reflect changing targets and circumstances. Our President/CEO presents the plan to each staff department to ensure their understanding, and obtain feedback and buy-in.

Our active communication with other nonprofit organizations, area businesses, government, faith-based groups, clients, volunteers and the Arlington community keep these groups informed and provides an avenue for their input into our planning processes. This open forum for dialogue has helped shape the organization, helping us align with national best practices, learn from other organizations, avoid duplication of services, develop partnerships towards mutual goals and create efficiencies. If it is considered a best practice to collaborate in the delivery of services, it stands to reason that planning cannot be done in a vacuum. This is an important distinction with A-SPAN. Furthermore, by opening our planning processes to our stakeholders, it contributes to the exceptional level of support we have from the Arlington community – most noted by the over 4,000 people that volunteer with our organization annually.

When our committees plan their activities, they look first to the strategic plan to identify their assignments and goals. And, when we so frequently ask the question – “how are we doing?” – we go back to the strategic plan, our compass, to determine if we are on-track or if we need a course correction. In fact, at each board meeting the CEO’s report is structured to focus on our recent progress against the plan. To be clear, it is not our strategic plan itself that is exceptional, but rather our ongoing and vibrant planning processes, the many ways in which the strategic plan is put to use, and the extent to which a strategic planning mindset has enveloped the organization and our stakeholders.

Join us on May 21 for the 2015 Best Practices Celebration to learn more about A-SPAN's management techniques.

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