A Case Study of Lutheran Social Services of Indiana
By Alexander Porte
For nonprofit leaders around the country, the first few months of the new year present an opportunity to hit the ground running with their organization’s strategic objectives. But what happens to this strategy when an unforeseen crisis rears its head early on in the year?
In March 2020, nonprofit leaders across the United States were forced to answer this question as the COVID-19 crisis buffeted our communities. With rapid changes in constituent needs and safety protocols, some leaders made the understandable decision to put their organization’s strategic priorities on hold and channel the entirety of their focus into day-to-day operations.
However, some organizations were able to manage the needs of the pandemic while continuing to advance their organization’s strategic goals.
Lutheran Social Services of Indiana (“LSSI”), a social services organization that works with and empowers families to overcome their most pressing challenges, used our adaptive strategy model to do just that.
Earlier this year, we had a candid conversation with Angie Moellering, LSSI’s President and CEO, about their use of adaptive strategy and how it has influenced her organization’s response to COVID-19. Spectrum first partnered with LSSI in 2013 to develop their strategy and once again in 2019 to refresh it. Additionally, we provide on-going implementation support.
Ongoing Use of Our Tools
At the conclusion of our strategy work, LSSI had a set of tools they could update and use to make decisions as they adapt their strategy to the current environment. At the center of these tools is the intended impact. Meant to serve as a beacon for the organization, the intended impact clearly states who the organization serves, what its impact will be and how it will measure progress.
LSSI used their intended impact statement as both an internal screening tool and an outward facing description of what LSSI does. Moellering noted that “the impact statement gives some specificity to what we are trying to accomplish,” and eight years after it was initially developed, the statement remains unchanged and continues to be used by LSSI’s leadership to determine the appropriateness of initiatives.
For example, the team referred to the intended impact when LSSI was approached with an opportunity to get involved in a new community project. The project had merit but would deviate from LSSI’s core work. While the decision to ultimately refrain from engaging in this opportunity was difficult, the LSSI team was confident in the decision because when evaluated, the opportunity did not align with their intended impact.
Externally, LSSI’s intended impact statement is used to provide their community and funders with an idea of who they are. Organizations often use their mission statement for this purpose, keeping the intended impact as an internal statement. However, LSSI uses their impact statement on the homepage of their website and infuses it into all of their grants. To Moellering and her team, LSSI’s intended impact statement has become such a vital component of who they are and what they are trying to accomplish that changing the statement would fly in the face of consistency.
Like the intended impact, LSSI also uses the matrix map to keep the organization’s strategy alive. As a visual representation of their business model, the LSSI team has been steadfast in updating their map on an annual basis to keep it relevant. In Angie’s words, “the matrix map forces you to be honest with yourself.” Such honesty was exemplified when her team made the difficult – but necessary decision – to transition one of their longest running programs that, although a staple of the organization, was imposing a significant financial burden. Leadership was already concerned about this program’s financial viability, so the map gave the team the affirmation needed to take proactive measures to change it.
During the strategy refresh, Spectrum and LSSI developed a forward-looking map that reflected the organization’s impact and financial targets. This map will serve as a target for the organization over the next several years.
Adaptability in the Face of Uncertainty
Spectrum and LSSI finished our strategy refresh at the end of 2019. As LSSI began implementation in erly-2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic would alter the organization’s plans.
The structure of our adaptive strategy plan, however, left the LSSI team well-prepared to continue moving their strategy forward. “When we were not COVID-ing, we had a plan that we could get back to,” remarked Angie.
Not only did this freedom from a rigid schedule allow LSSI to stay on track with its goals, it gave the organization the flexibility to respond to their constituents’ changing needs in real time. One of the biggest questions on Moellering’s mind in the early months of the pandemic was “how do we help the families we serve get connected to COVID-19 support?” By not being beholden to a fixed set of objectives that may not have aligned with the community’s rapidly changing needs, the LSSI team was able to spend the precious time answering this vital question.
Incidentally, having the flexibility to zero-in on COVID “put a laser point on the need areas of mental health, addiction, and workforce development” that will influence LSSI’s strategy going forward, according to Angie. Paradoxically, being afforded the ability to temporarily deviate from their strategy has bolstered the organization’s overall strategy.
Developing strategy is easy when compared to the hard work of implementation. To help the organization overcome these challenges, LSSI and Spectrum have maintained an active working relationship through ongoing periodic implementation support.
These meetings give Moellering and her team a creative break from the day-to-day operations to focus on their strategic priorities. As she noted, “you have to create space to work on strategy. It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day. Having these touch points with Steve allows us to focus on our strategy and implementation.”
This ongoing arrangement is also beneficial to us as a firm, as it allows us an opportunity to both maintain a close connection with one of our clients and to understand how our adaptive strategy model is being used in the field.
Hope as we may that the COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime event, it will not be the last crisis that will buffet organizations. However, there are measures that organizations can take to keep strategy front and center even as they navigate through the next big event.
LSSI’s strategic success over the course of the pandemic has demonstrated how an adaptive strategy model can be a highly effective method for thriving in the midst of grave uncertainty.