Children's Voice September/October 2008

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Management Matters

Becoming a Higher Performance Organization

By William Atkinson

Jeffrey S. Bormaster, a senior consultant of private agency services for CWLA, has been working in this field for over 40 years, helping educational, governmental, and nonprofit agencies. During that time, he has become keenly aware of two major challenges that agencies face. "There are a lot of challenges these days for agencies related to more demand for services, less government funding, and increased challenges in recruiting and retaining a workforce because of pay rates and long hours," Bormaster says. "I have talked with a lot of agencies that make it clear to me that they need help in getting better. However, when I ask them what they need help with in specific, they have a difficult time specifically defining their needs."

In response, Bormaster spent time studying the research literature on topics such as workforce management and change management. With this information, he identified specific areas where agencies may need help. He organized this information into a matrix, which he calls "Assessment, Training & Consultation to Help Your Agency Become a High(er) Performance Organization." Bormaster's matrix has six elements: workforce, program, accreditation, marketing/ fundraising, governance, and senior management.

To help implement his program, Bormaster sits down with agency leaders to identify their challenges. In many cases, agencies struggle with more than one of the six areas, leading leaders to feel overwhelmed by where to begin. Their agencies may need help at several levels: with the board, leadership, programs, human resources, or fundraising. "I explain to them that they can't tackle everything at once," he says. "They need to be strategic and select one area to start." He then begins working with the agency where and when it is ready and able. "If we work long enough in one area and start to see some results, they will often then be willing to start working on some of the other areas," he adds.

In some cases, an agency will claim that it has neither the time nor the money to start working on any of the areas. Bormaster's response: "Not having the time or money is not a reason, because this is something you can't afford not to do." While each agency needs help with a unique combination of improvement opportunities, Bormaster is finding the problems agencies most often struggle with are personnel (workforce) and money (marketing/fundraising) issues. He points out, however, that the matrix emphasizes everything is linked. "For example, we may find that part of the reason they have money problems is because they have problems with programs," he says.

Through training and consultation, Bormaster has found that the organizations committed to change tend to do quite well with his matrix program. Three organizations share how Bormaster helped achieve meaningful improvements.

Parsons, in Albany, New York, is a 27-program agency that provides services in foster parenting and adoption, family support services, educational programs, advocacy, residential care, and recreational services. "We have supervisory training in place because, by the nature of our business, there is a need for clinical supervision," explains Rick Johnson, chief operating officer. "We conduct the supervisory training annually, and it fills a particular need." He adds that the agency realized it also needed training for management supervision. "We were searching for a contextual program--something that would speak to supervision in terms of knowledge, tools, and skills in a generic way, which would provide a context or framework for all supervisors on the management side."

Bormaster had worked with the board at Parsons around governance issues in the past, and some of the staff had attended Bormaster's marketing training programs. As a result, the agency became aware of another one of his programs, Supervision for Success. "I realized this might be what we wanted," Johnson says. "We didn't expect it to be a 'be all and end all,' but we felt it would be a beginning foundation."

From Johnson's perspective, quality supervision relates to retention. "Research shows that people leave employment not just for money, but because the supervision is not adequate, not reinforcing, and not helpful," he explains. This not only relates to the transfer of knowledge and the development of skills, but also to the support to engage in, and succeed with, complex and challenging work.

Parsons arranged to have Bormaster start by doing training for its middle managers. "We didn't want to start at the top or at the first line," Johnson says. "My goal was to assess the impact of the course and then decide where to take it." It turned out to be a successful experience for the 36 supervisors who participated. "Jeff has an excellent personality for training, and he has great mastery of the content, so he ended up having great credibility with the people," Johnson continues. "He was able to motivate them."

In fact, he motivated them so much that one group of supervisors wanted to revise the policy at Parsons that related to the role of the supervisor. "Through our regular policy development process, they amended existing policy to reflect the new principles and techniques they had learned relative to the role of the supervisor," Johnson says. The supervisors also wanted to get their bosses, who are the directors, involved. Johnson approached their agency council, composed of directors, and explained what their staff had asked for. The result: They just finished this class in March, and it was extremely well received. "Now, the directors can knowledgeably reinforce what their subordinates have learned in the prior class," says Johnson. Parsons is already planning for next year's class, and Bormaster is in the process of training members of the middle management staff to be trainers in this program.

La Familia is a nonprofit social service agency in Albuquerque, New Mexico, licensed to provide adoption, treatment foster care, and outpatient counseling services. It also provides care management services for adults and support services for adolescents who are aging out of the foster care system. Beverly Nomberg, president and CEO, says the agency has come to trust Bormaster. "We have found that, the more he is here, the more we tend to grow and prosper," she says. "As such, we decided to continue to use him in a variety of capacities. He not only helped us create a strategic plan and develop an active strategic planning process, but also helped us shift from a non-active board to an active board."

As a result of Bormaster's work, the board at La Familia now participates in much of the planning for the agency and is moving into fundraising for the first time. The board is also getting in volved in utilization of resources and efforts to acquire a building and develop a building plan for the agency. Bormaster helped the agency take a hard look at its budgets and deficits; it ended up closing two programs. "We closed one in 2004 and another in 2005," Nomberg says. "It took us a while to come to these conclusions, even though Jeff had said a year or two beforehand that we would have to close them. In other words, he could see it more clearly and objectively than we could." Certainly, she admits, these were not easy decisions to make, and there was some fallout. For example, the agency had to layoff about 20 staff. "This was disruptive to the whole organization, and it was also very demoralizing," she says.

Since then, though, the agency has become much sounder financially, with a very positive cash flow. "This has put us in a very good position to move in the direction of acquiring the building and developing a real long-term asset for the organization," Nomberg continues. "In working on the building, we won't have to use any more financial reserves. We can do industrial revenue bond funding for the building. We can then use our financial reserves for building programs."

Three years ago, the agency never would have imagined that it would be in this kind of positive financial position. "If we hadn't taken a hard look at our programs and decided to close two of them, we would not be in this positive position," Nomberg says. La Familia is now in the habit of looking at every program and potential program with a critical eye for opportunity. "Jeff has always taught us to look at everything, and never arbitrarily say 'no' to anything," Nomberg says. "See what it might have to offer. If it is positive and offers a base for building on it, then we need to see if it makes sense to go for it."

Los Angeles-based Drew Child Development operates a child welfare division, an early child education division, and a mental health division. Mike Jackson PhD became president and CEO in early 2002. At the time, he admits, the agency needed to do an "extreme makeover."

"It had been very prosperous when it first opened in 1987, and it received a lot of grants and private sector donations," he says. "However, by 2002, a lot of that had eroded." The agency was also in a stagnant mode in terms of growth. "When I came aboard, we got a major contract, which was an alternative payment contract," Jackson explains. "One of my first jobs was to put this contract in place. However, we didn't have the infrastructure to do this."

Several members of the board didn't seem to be clear about where the organization should be going strategically. "They spent six months telling me about the problems the agency had, not the direction it should be taking, so I decided to set my own direction," Jackson says. In addition, he brought in some new board members, so there was a learning curve and a lot of challenges related to helping them learn about the finances of the agency.

In the meantime, the organization was beginning to grow, and Jackson was working on implementing a lot of the new programs. "We grew from a mom-and-pop-sized organization to a medium- sized organization almost overnight," he says. "Our budget went from about $4 million to about $20 million in a short time." To assist in the transition, Jackson brought Bormaster in to help sort through all of this and to help the organization move ahead, especially in light of the new revenue and resulting growth.

Bormaster met with the board and explained that Jackson needed support and that everyone needed to develop a plan together to ensure the organization could continue to move forward. Bormaster then helped Jackson develop a one-year plan to help him focus on his leadership role. "The board provided me with an executive coach, who had an open and objective attitude about the agency," Jackson says. "He helped me and other members of the executive leadership team make the transition, especially as it related to personnel issues."

According to Jackson, the transition was very challenging, and it took a lot out of him personally, especially working through the required organizational and cultural changes. "However, Jeff was very instrumental in helping me, the management team, and the board work through all of the various issues," Jackson says. "Overall, we are now in a better position for the future because of the work he did."

To contact Jeff Bormaster, e-mail

William Atkinson is a full-time business writer and former regional reporter for TIME, as well as a regular contributor to Children's Voice.

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