AbilityFirst is a Southern California nonprofit serving people with developmental disabilities. They came to La Piana Consulting at the height of the Great Recession in 2009 in order to think about strategies for responding to economic change. Our Real-Time Strategic Planning (RTSP) process was a perfect fit for their needs because they wanted to know how to make good decisions in the face of change, and RTSP focuses on creating a Strategy Screen—or list of criteria—to guide decision making.

The challenge: the state of California provided approximately 50% of AbilityFirst’s funding either directly or indirectly—and the state was in the throes of a major budget crisis. The last state budget process had resulted in significant cuts to state funded services, and the prospect for additional major cuts in coming years was certain. AbilityFirst knew they had to be prepared to survive these cuts.

Over a period of two months we used the RTSP process with a committee of board members and senior managers to develop critical elements of the Strategy Screen and to analyze information about other providers in the field.

For AbilityFirst, the process focused extensively on identifying the organization’s competitive advantages and using that as primary criteria to guide decision making. These competitive advantages included specialized facilities for both camping and after school programs that no one else could match, as well as a significant financial reserve.

On a sunny winter day in a meeting room overlooking the Santa Monica beach, the full board of directors gathered for a planning retreat. The specific agenda was to confirm the Strategy Screen that had been developed by the RTSP committee, then apply that screen to the Big Question facing AbilityFirst: which programs would receive priority protection as funding diminished?

The board quickly approved the Strategy Screen and systematically applied the tool to consider the organization’s ten programs. The discussion was focused, but rich in details that staff would later use in executing on the board’s decisions. By the end of the day, the board had identified two programs as not core to fulfilling the organization’s mission. The staff had its marching orders: consider how to shed these programs over time in a responsible way.

Over the next six months, one of the two programs was easily transferred to another agency, ensuring that clients received ongoing services. The second involves complex and long-term financial and legal agreements and could not be eliminated in the short term. That said, the organization continues to negotiate a possible transfer of the program to another nonprofit specializing in the field.

The State of California continued to face major budget challenges in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 fiscal years, resulting in further cuts in funding for the developmentally disabled. AbilityFirst was ready and continues to thrive.

The result: AbilityFirst continues to be a highly focused nonprofit providing the most effective, high quality services possible to meet the needs of its clients and to fulfill its mission. In the face of financial pressures, it is operating in a manner that is sustainable over the long run and now has decision making tools at its disposal to continue to develop and refine future strategies.

(This client profile was first published in the La Piana Consulting blog in October 2011.)