A-SPAN provides life-sustaining services for Arlington’s street homeless. Their mission is to secure permanent housing for one of Arlington’s most vulnerable populations through outreach and relationships built on trust and respect. From their street outreach to permanent supportive housing programs, A-SPAN is able to assist nearly 1,000 street homeless people annually.

What does winning this award mean for you and your organization?

The Center for Nonprofit Advancement’s Board Leadership award is a monumental achievement for A-SPAN at a time when we are on the cusp of realizing one. The Award would bring added publicity and recognition to A-SPAN as we transition to a year-round Homeless Services Center – a first of its kind facility in the DC Metro Area – September/October 2015. This achievement delivered by A-SPAN’s current management team and board culminates over 20 years of work by the organization and our advocates. The Homeless Services Center will deliver the best results for our clients in the most efficient, cost-effective manner for local government and the taxpayer base.

However, the cost of operating a year-round Homeless Services Center will be far greater than what it costs A-SPAN to operate a five-month Emergency Winter Shelter. As we carry out the type of major fundraising efforts needed to cover the difference, the recognition the award brings and the seal of approval from the Center for Nonprofit Advancement Selection Committee should be considered vital to our efforts. It serves to validate all that we have accomplished and all that we strive to do. It will help our donors realize that their investment with A-SPAN is well managed and well-placed. A-SPAN has a strong media presence and development ability primed to maximize the notoriety the award brings to an organization. The Board Leadership Award would serve as the catalyst for bringing our groundbreaking work to the region’s attention.

What have you learned through the application process for the Board Leadership Award?

The application process for the Board Leadership Award has benefitted our organization since the process requires applicants to conduct an intensive and exhaustive appraisal of its Board practices. In order to prepare our initial response, we established a committee comprised of the President/CEO, Board Chair, two other board members and the Director of Marketing and Grants tasked with completing each round. To do so successfully, it required us as an organization to ask the tough questions, and respond to them honestly.

The application process caused us to conduct an internal review in order to capture what we do well already, and to determine can be done better. What is worthy of the award? What areas can be improved? What processes are strong enough to be considered areas of excellence and worthy of sharing not only with the Center for Nonprofit Advancement Selection Committee, but with our constituents and organizations that we regularly collaborate with? We understand that the Board Leadership Award and its application process serves as a beacon for all nonprofits. For us as an organization to aspire to be the standard-bearer, we must diligently assess every internal process, impart what we learn through the process to other area nonprofit management teams, and to understand how the information we share can affect real change.

After having gone through this review process as part of our submission to the Center for Nonprofit Advancement, we now intend to institutionalize the review process itself.  In this way, review of our management processes now reflects the culture that the management team itself helped to create: one of transparency, openness to critique, and tireless dedication to continually improving. This approach has helped us get to the point where we believe ourselves worthy of the Board Leadership Award. By having gone through the process, we have learned that we want this review to be part of the way we conduct business moving forward.

What advice would you offer for other organizations/board members striving for excellence in board leadership?

The advice that A-SPAN would offer to other nonprofit leaders striving for excellence in Board leadership is that the strategic plans organizations dedicate so much time and resources to develop really need to be the driver for everything that the organization does. A-SPAN’s strategic plan is used throughout our organization as a dynamic, living “compass.” It does not just sit on the shelf but guides our operational planning, budgeting, and management. It keeps us focused on our programmatic objectives and strategies, as well as our priorities in development, communications, finance, and governance.

The strategic plan is the focus of each board retreat where we ensure support and understanding of our mission, vision, goals and objectives, strategies, timeframes, and roles and responsibilities. The plan is maintained on an ongoing basis by the board which updates the document as needed to reflect changing targets and circumstances. Our President/CEO presents the plan to each staff department to ensure their understanding, and obtain feedback and buy-in.

Our active communication with other nonprofit organizations, area businesses, government, faith-based groups, clients, volunteers and the Arlington community keep these groups informed and provides an avenue for their input into our planning processes. This open forum for dialogue has helped shape the organization, helping us align with national best practices, learn from other organizations, avoid duplication of services, develop partnerships towards mutual goals and create efficiencies. If it is considered a best practice to collaborate in the delivery of services, it stands to reason that planning cannot be done in a vacuum. This is an important distinction with A-SPAN. Furthermore, by opening our planning processes to our stakeholders, it contributes to the exceptional level of support we have from the Arlington community – most noted by the over 4,000 people that volunteer with our organization annually.

When our committees plan their activities, they look first to the strategic plan to identify their assignments and goals. And, when we so frequently ask the question – “how are we doing?” – we go back to the strategic plan, our compass, to determine if we are on-track or if we need a course correction. In fact, at each board meeting the CEO’s report is structured to focus on our recent progress against the plan. To be clear, it is not our strategic plan itself that is exceptional, but rather our ongoing and vibrant planning processes, the many ways in which the strategic plan is put to use, and the extent to which a strategic planning mindset has enveloped the organization and our stakeholders.