President's Perspective

Strategic Assistance: The Secret Sauce

April 03, 2007

by Carol Thompson Cole

We often hear from our investment partners that the combination of financial and strategic assistance that they receive from VPP is one of the most valuable aspects of the relationship. The money side of this equation is clearly understood, but the strategic assistance part more often is not. What is strategic assistance and how does it work?

Strategic assistance starts with establishing a trusting relationship between us and our investment partners. This trust has to be earned on both sides and takes time to build. One of the advantages of making multi-year investments is that we have the time to build and nurture these relationships. We try to develop an open “give-and-take” with our investment partners where there is a climate that allows for complete honesty and where both parties know that neither will run from a problem no matter how tough. Both parties have to say what they mean and mean what they say and be willing to make some very challenging decisions.

On our end, we have to avoid being overbearing or imposing our aspirations, our vision, our milestones, or our biases. We always must remember that it is their organization, not ours; they have to own and live with their decisions and actions. We must remain respectful of the challenges they face, the work they do, and the difficulties encountered when trying to transform their organizations. As we become invested in the success of our investment partners, one of the greatest challenges is simultaneously acting as champions for the organizations while keeping the objectivity and distance that allows us to be effective advisors. We have to stay strategic in our advice and not jump in and try and “do” things for our nonprofit partners, particularly since our goal is to enable them to build their capacity to the point where they can sustain their new growth without our support.

For our investment partners, this relationship means changing their whole frame of reference with regard to the way they work with funders. We don’t just give organizations money and wait for a report. We are at their sides to help them meet their vision and goals and work through a variety of management issues, many of them quite daunting. For some leaders, this can be difficult. They are more used to a dynamic of “Just give me the money and leave me alone” or “Just tell me what you want to hear” and aren’t accustomed to having this kind of relationship with a funder. It takes time for them to actually feel they can come to us with their challenges and that we will roll up our sleeves to help.

We work to strike a balance between our results-oriented practice, the expectations for meeting milestones, and the quick achievement of goals versus the realities of the time it takes for transformative change, the resources that the investment partners have to enact and absorb such change, and the work they are doing on the front lines that doesn’t stop during all this growth.

We have no cookie cutter approach to strategic assistance, no formulaic process. It can be as simple as asking questions that our investment partners have never before had time to ponder, like when a VPP partner asked Maria Gomez, President & CEO of Mary’s Center, “What’s your dream? Where do you want Mary’s Center to go?” Or as specific as picking up the phone and arranging a meeting between an executive director like Sandy Dang of Asian American LEAD and a county executive in Maryland as she prepares to expand into a new location. Strategic assistance is about helping source board members and senior staff members. It’s about coaching an executive director through making tricky decisions. When an organization is hiring a search firm for the first time, VPP gives advice on how to run a professional search. Renegotiating loans, identifying sites for expansion, opening the doors to potential partnerships—all of these efforts are part of our day-to-day work at VPP. But most of all, it’s about getting close enough to the investment partner and so trusted by its leadership that, as we can see the subtleties and nuances of the issues within the organization, our insights will be valued.

The partners on VPP’s investment team have the years of executive experience to help support and guide our investment partners and their boards through the process of transforming and growing their organizations. They know the National Capital Region inside and out and can make connections to individuals, agencies, organizations, funders, and corporations that enrich and enhance the networks in which their nonprofit partners operate. They are skilled at managing complex operations, situations, and negotiations and help VPP’s portfolio organizations craft memorandums of understanding and relationships with new partners.

And most important, they understand what the executive is experiencing because they have “been there and done that.” They have made the mistakes and often have the scars to prove it. They also know what success looks and feels like. The challenge is to be an influencer and not a supervisor so a real partnership is developed and they become a trusted advisor.

In the business world, management assistance is readily available—at a cost—from a variety of sources. It is accepted that a part of doing business is obtaining assistance from experts such as attorneys, management consultants, search firms, and others to build an infrastructure that will support the company’s leaders and its goals.

In the nonprofit world, access to this kind of advice is harder to come by. Nonprofits are expected to serve a social good but not spend time or precious resources on thinking about how they could achieve their mission in bigger or more efficient ways. When this type of support is available, it is in limited quantities and focused on a few narrow areas, such as development and finance. Nonprofits rarely get to look at their organizations strategically and holistically. But just like a business, nonprofits need to source exceptional executive talent, need to be sure they have the right people in the right seats on the bus, need executive coaching, have to manage change within their organizations to meet changing external realities, need to be able to plan for the future, and so on.

Strategic assistance enables nonprofits to make maximum use of the resources they have and position themselves to grow. Strategic assistance coupled with the financial support is helping take our investment partners and the communities they serve to new levels.