CASE STUDY: Helping a Chicago Social Services Agency Create a Plan for a Sustainable Future

Keshet is a faith-based organization that provides a wide range of services for children and adults with intellectual challenges. They found themselves in need of a strategic planning process because they had a surplus of ideas and clients, but lacked the management and governance structures to keep pace with the associated costs.

Keshet has a staff (some seasonal) of up to 300 people and delivers services to about 1,000 individuals in as many as 70 locations in and around Chicago. One of the unique aspects of Keshet is the lengths it goes to be client-centered. It is committed to its mission of serving the needs of individuals from youth to old age. This presents very significant financial challenges because costs often far exceed what families are able to pay and what the government is willing to subsidize.

Within a short window of time, Keshet needed to formalize how key processes were performed, improve the alignment of revenues and expenses, and enhance governance systems to ensure the future sustainability of the organization and predictable, high-quality customer service.

Abbie Weisberg has been with Keshet for nearly three decades, and has held the title of CEO since 2007. Weisberg felt there was a need for strategic planning for the organization, but from her discussions with other CEOs, learned it isn’t always an easy topic to broach.

“It’s a lot of work and it puts your back against the wall because what comes out of the process is not fully predictable and it puts the organization and its leadership on the spot — to have to deliver on a defined plan with clear goals,” she said.

Also, per Weisberg, while the Keshet board held regular meetings, they weren’t always consistent in thinking at a strategic level.
Shalom Klein is the current president of the board, but has served in other roles and as a board member going back about 10 years. As he and Weisberg undertook the strategic planning process, they recognized that the organization had traditionally been in a reactive posture.

“As an established organization, staffing, programs, budget, those things have expanded, with the board taking on a relatively reactive role,” Klein said. “On the other hand, I’d give it a good grade in meeting community needs.”

Weisberg said she was committed to bringing in outside help to guide the necessary changes in the internal culture, financial management and governance. She broached the subject with Dr. Kevin Kirshenbaum, a Keshet parent and donor with extensive experience in strategic planning. They began interviewing consulting firms to find a good fit.

Keshet leadership selected Measuring Success as its partner in the strategic planning process because of positive references about its work with other Chicago nonprofit institutions, and its appreciation for Measuring Success’ ability and willingness to tailor its proven strategic planning model to each client’s unique situation.

After talking with Dr. Harry Bloom of Measuring Success, the leadership knew they found the right partner.

“Places We Never Would Have Gone”
Weisberg said that Dr. Bloom was able to push the organization, which she appreciated.

“He pushed me through parts of the process — places I never would have gone. There was such an eye to detail. The level of attention and involvement was priceless,” she said.

Measuring Success led with a detailed, data-rich analysis that identified Keshet’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT). It surfaced four key areas of needed strategic planning focus: Quality Measures and Processes, Staffing and Professional Development, Enhanced Sustainability, and Governance Strengthening.

Weisberg said that the Sustainability component was where they got the strongest buy-in from their program directors in the field.

“We opened a new, more positive line of communication between the CFO and our program directors. Before strategic planning, our directors were wonderful at running the programs, but disengaged from working to help ensure their financial sustainability. As part of the strategic planning process, we made the finances more transparent for them, and engaged them as active partners in figuring out how we were going to ensure the combination of fee revenues, donor philanthropy and government funding ensured a sustainable outcome. Our directors “got it,” she said.

It wasn’t that way from the beginning.

“There was a lot of skepticism going in. ‘Why am I doing this?’ ‘Things are going great.’ ‘You’re going to open up a can of worms.’ These were just a few of the things that Weisberg heard from her board and staff.

“As Keshet expanded [over the years], we needed to take the steps necessary to accomplish our goals and mission.” Klein said, adding, “we needed to try to stretch the rubber band and start to be proactive. The process [of strategic planning] asked a lot of good questions. It involved people who love and care for the organization. The right buttons were pushed and good feedback came out.”

“We did it through a process,” Weisberg said. “What we did early on was to begin to implement good governance.

Kirschenbaum’s prior experience using governance systems in support of strategic planning was key. Positive board reaction to the emerging governance recommendations was an immediate sign that the entire strategic planning process was going to be a success.”

A Great Outcome
Now, all of the recommended process changes are in place, and Keshet has a financial roadmap to take it from a more precarious budgetary situation to a place that is strategic, forward-thinking, and on solid financial ground (with a fiscal surplus in its future).

One of the most important components for Weisberg is the continued ability to most effectively serve individuals. Many come to Keshet around age 3. The organization needs to be around long enough to help these families through their school years and then into independent living circumstances (where appropriate).

One of the things that Weisberg most appreciated was that Dr. Bloom and Daniel Chiat, project manager, were able to keep the process moving while being inclusive.

“Relative to financial planning, they didn’t waste our time. They didn’t say ‘figure out what works best.’ They gave us the tools and we plugged in our numbers,” she said.

Weisberg said, “I walked away from this process feeling like we worked really hard and our board was kept right in the loop. The level of professionalism the Measuring Success team brought to bear was unlike that of any other people we’ve ever worked with.”

Klein said that one of the things that he liked about the process was the involvement of everyone along the way.

“It wasn’t a staff process or a board process. It was both,” Klein said. “What we discussed, we did it slowly and methodically to make sure we were committed to the next steps.”

Keshet is now busy executing the plans developed through the process and is ensuring its achievement of plan outcomes through custom dashboards, new governance structures, and new communication systems to continue the work where Measuring Success left off.

Weisberg could not be happier with the results.

“Harry just owned it. When we hit the inevitable planning ‘bumps in the road,’ the Measuring Success team kept supplying us with helpful products, demonstrations, new dates, motivational talks, and video conference calls,” she said.

“Much of what went into the plan was known beforehand. But the organization of strategic initiatives and defined accountabilities via a board-approved strategic plan created an environment where the directors, staff, and board members, everyone, had to step up and knew exactly what to do, and why it had to be done. It was truly transformational for Keshet,” she said.

Klein had some words of wisdom to share with others who might think about undergoing such a process.

“Don’t do what everyone else is doing. Have the tough conversations,” Klein said. “We would recommend Measuring Success in a major way, but we would not have been able to do this successfully had we not determined that this was something we wanted to do.”

If you’d like to learn how your organization can benefit from a strategic planning process with Measuring Success, please contact Dr. Harry Bloom (