One of about 400 “healthcare conversion foundations” nationwide, The Foundation for Delaware County was created through the 2016 sale of the Crozer-Keystone Health System, a four-hospital healthcare organization serving Delaware County, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia.
The sale endowed The Foundation for Delaware County with $57 million in assets, making it the largest philanthropy in the county. In fiscal year 2019, the foundation awarded its first unrestricted grants, totaling $1,165,000, to 42 area nonprofits serving Delaware County. It also continued to administer a portfolio of public health programs inherited from its predecessor organization. These range from the federally funded Healthy Start program that reaches 900 clients annually to three WIC sites serving 9,000 women, babies and young children. Management of these programs sets The Foundation for Delaware County apart from most community foundations, which are typically not involved in the direct delivery of services.
Working closely with the leadership of The Foundation for Delaware County, Schultz & Williams helped shape the foundation’s first-ever strategic plan—a blueprint for this new organization to maximize its measurable impact across the communities it serves.
A strategic plan should answer three fundamental questions: Where are we now? Where are we going? And, how do we get there? While the foundation’s planning process was launched with an agreed-upon mission, nearly every decision about how that mission would be fulfilled was open for discussion.
At the heart of the process were the explorations of six work groups each focusing on a central planning issue revealed through the discovery phase of the project. Each group was composed of Board members, staff members and representatives from the wider community.
In 2018, The Foundation for Delaware County engaged Schultz & Williams to create its first-ever strategic plan. The charge was to review and assess the foundation’s current institutional profile and provide a new and sustainable strategic direction. The plan would balance the multifaceted nature of the foundation’s mission—administering public health programs, making grants to improve the health of the community, provide philanthropic services to promote generosity in and for the people of the county, and serve in a community leadership role as a convener around critical issues. The new strategic plan would also serve as the backbone for fundraising going forward, offering a clear direction around which to develop a case for support and build upon current fundraising efforts.
Broadly speaking, any strategic plan needs to answer three fundamental questions: Where are we now? Where are we going? And, how do we get there? However, when the plan is an organization’s very first, the universe of possible answers can be dauntingly expansive. Yes, The Foundation for Delaware County launched the planning process with an agreed-upon mission, but nearly every decision about how that mission would be fulfilled was open for discussion.
What grant-making guidelines would the foundation adopt? What role would its inherited public health programs play going forward? What place did the foundation hold in the ecosystem of local nonprofits and in the life of Delaware County?
It was even possible to ask whether the foundation should aspire to its own long-term sustainability or spend down its assets for the immediate benefit of the people of the county.
In addition, all these questions needed to be answered not in the abstract but with an understanding of the particular identity and needs of the community the foundation serves. Home to 565,000 residents in 49 municipalities, Delaware County is remarkably diverse and faces complex challenges. Although the county as a whole compares well with peers nationally on many measures, such as educational attainment and primary care access, it ranks unfavorably on a range of others—from rates for certain crimes, teen pregnancy and low birth weight to death from HIV, heart disease and stroke.
What’s more, data compiled on a county-wide basis can frequently mask acute local needs and issues. For example, the county as a whole is ranked fourth highest in Pennsylvania in per capita income, yet it is home to nearly 60,000 people living in poverty and to neighborhoods where multigenerational poverty is endemic.
Statistics like these signal the need for effective intervention—and for rigorous prioritization. Even with The Foundation for Delaware County’s significant resources, it would be impossible for the foundation to address all the county’s needs.
To meet the foundation’s challenges, S&W structured a strategic planning process that was thorough, inclusive and iterative. Spanning ten months, it drew upon a broad range of perspectives, both from those within and outside the organization.
As always, S&W’s approach included an in-depth review of background materials, a phase of information-gathering interviews, benchmarking against peer organizations, and a situational analysis identifying the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges defining the organization’s position. It also included a survey of existing metrics on public health and other issues in the county to determine what had been well measured and where future work would be needed to gather more granular information.
At the heart of the process were the explorations of six work groups each focusing on a central planning issue, from the foundation’s grant-making to its operational and financial sustainability. These groups—composed of Board members, staff members and representatives from the wider community—each met multiple times, working with S&W facilitators to shape recommendations.
Planning moved forward through a series of rational and organic steps. The results of one work group informed the thinking of others. Key decisions were made that became building blocks for the plan as a whole, such as:
- a clear, shared recognition of the value of the foundation’s legacy public health programs;
- a decision to focus the foundation’s work not on public health as narrowly defined, but on a set of root determinants of well-being, ranging from economic stability to factors in the built environment;
- a focus on measurable impact, and therefore on data gathering, analysis and dissemination as an integral part of the foundation’s work; and
- a recommitment to the promotion of philanthropy as a central pillar of the foundation’s mission.
Working from these and other core decisions, S&W framed a plan around six strategic initiatives, each supported by a set of short-term, mid-term, and longer-term action steps.
An unexpected outcome of the process was a fresh restatement of the foundation’s mission to reflect the sharper sense of self-identity that the planning process yielded.
One measure of a successful strategic plan is that it articulates decisions impossible to foresee at the outset that come to seem inevitable in retrospect. When this is the case, it’s clear that pillars of the plan are solid, that they reflect strong consensus, and that the planning process has been truly productive, leading the organization forward to a clearer view of the path ahead. By this measure and based on feedback from the foundation’s Board and leadership, the strategic plan for The Foundation for Delaware County stands out as an unqualified success.
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