Mission Sustainability Stories: WITS + Boundless Readers

Monday, October 3, 2016

Mission Alignment, Culture Alignment. Brenda Palm on the success of the WITS/Boundless Readers merger

Editor’s note: As part of Forefront’s Mission Sustainability Initiative, we’re highlighting models of successful partnerships that have put local nonprofits on a strategic path to sustainability and growth. On October 20, Forefront will host a learning summit at the Chase Auditorium in Chicago. The Summit will offer a unique opportunity for nonprofit leaders to learn about the principles and practices of strategic nonprofit alliances, partnerships, joint ventures, collaboratives, and mergers. Participants will explore how strategic partnerships have helped nonprofits align their services, strengthen their infrastructure, and scale their missions, even in the face of reduced funding and increased demand. Learn more and register here. 

We recently spoke with Brenda Palm, CEO of Working in the Schools (WITS). We discussed how Boundless Readers merged into WITS, as well as their move into Chicago Literacy Alliance’s Literacenter.

What were the circumstances leading up to your strategic partnership? How did you decide to merge?

In 2013, the Boundless Readers board began to explore a merge into Working in the Schools (WITS). The Boundless Readers board’s goal was to ensure the continuation of its cornerstone teacher professional development program, the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award program (RLTA) which has more than 25 years of program service to CPS teachers. The conversation between Dorne Eastwood, the Boundless Readers Executive Director and myself was sparked by encouragement from the Chicago Literacy Alliance and board members of both Boundless Readers and WITS who knew there was mission alignment between the two organizations. Both organizations formed committees to explore the merge and conduct due diligence: governance, financial viability, development, and program integration. The full boards of each organization voted to move forward, understanding that coming together would give us the opportunity to deepen the impact in the students we serve through integration of WITS volunteer literacy mentor program and the RLTA teacher development program.  

What were your goals at the end of the process?

The primary and driving goal was to integrate Boundless Readers' RLTA teacher program with WITS volunteer literacy mentorship programs, creating a holistic and supportive approach to literacy in the classroom. Existing synergies and program alignment became apparent throughout the merge consideration process and continue to emerge. This indicated that the programs should integrate, not just co-exist under the same organizational umbrella.

What was the process of merging like? Did you use a consultant or any legal counsel? How and at what points did you engage your stakeholders?

WITS and Boundless Readers boards provided pro-bono legal service and consultation throughout the merge. WITS hired a consultant to conduct an evaluation ‘audit’ after the merge to provide an objection review of the current evaluation process and to make recommendation on enhancements to evaluation. From the early exploration of the merge, WITS and Boundless Readers engaged key stakeholders from the foundation, corporate and school communities. These were our ‘thought partners’ through the process, pushing us to explore all opportunities and consider any challenges. The process strengthened and engaged the WITS community and continues to propel the merged organization.

How will you measure effectiveness of combining your organizations?

Since identifying the goal of the merge to be integration of the two programs, WITS established a new program model – Combined Classrooms. A Combined Classroom is any group of ten students or more from a single classroom that has a RLTA trained teacher and participates in any one literacy mentorship program. In year one of implementation of the Combined Classroom model (school year 2015-16), the evaluation points to in an increase in student attitudes towards reading, self-efficacy, and reading levels - with Combined Classrooms showing greater gains than those in stand-alone programs or those students not affected by WITS programming at all. 

We also measure effectiveness in budget efficiencies. Through the merge and also our office move to the Chicago Literacy Alliance’s Literacenter, there are budget efficiencies that allow us to expand programs.

What kind of impact have you seen for your community?

The immediate impact we see is a greater impact in students and service to more students. We see greater advancement in student literacy skills and development of positive mindset toward learning.

Also, the WITS community of volunteers, teachers and principals is stronger than ever. Principals are leveraging WITS volunteer and teacher programs to advance school culture and promote a love of reading and learning.

There are now more than 90 organizations that have joined the Chicago Literacy Alliance, many of these office in or utilize the Literacenter. The energy is tremendous. It is a space where incubation of collaboration and mergers is happening on a daily basis. WITS and Boundless Readers merged and moved into the Literacenter right around the same time. The timing was perfect and the supportive environment was a major component of the success of the merge.

Do you have any advice for nonprofits thinking about strategic restructuring?

Focus on mission alignment, then data, then governance, then…culture. Culture. Culture. The success of the WITS/Boundless Readers merger was propelled by culture—of rootedness and connection to the mission and to the students we serve. There is a culture of service, humility, of making decisions with an unwavering focus on the greater good. It is a marriage, in a sense. There is a courtship period that requires practicality, care and open-mindedness.

Also, expect challenges, but do not anticipate the challenges. Challenges will arise and the responsibility of leadership will be to keep focused on the greater good, on the vision for the deepened impact.

Would you recommend that a nonprofit attend Forefront’s Oct 20 Learning Summit?

Yes! It is energizing and important to engage in meaningful conversations about collaboration and mergers. One of our mottos through this process has been that we are ‘stronger together.’ Forefront is providing an opportunity for organizations to learn, explore and dream. It all starts with an idea, a vision….and at the core of the vision is mission alignment. I believe the Forefront Summit will inspire us all to explore collaboration, to visualize and consider how we can all serve our communities more powerfully together. We hope the WITS/Boundless Readers merger along with many others will demonstrate that there is tremendous opportunity through organizational mergers to deepen impact, build efficiencies, and create innovative program models.  

~ Brenda Palm, CEO, Working in the Schools (WITS)

Be on the lookout for an extended case study on WITS/Boundless Readers in the forthcoming Chicago Metropolitan Nonprofit Merger Study. The Merger Study will analyze, for the first time, nonprofit merger activity in the eight-county Chicago region and provide Illinoisnonprofits with tangible information and tools to strategically assess and guide successful mergers. Details on the release of the study will be posted on our blog in mid to late October.