What does it take for an organization to move from good to truly exceptional? For starters, it takes leaders willing to tackle tough strategic questions. Colleen Mensel, President and Chief Executive Officer of El Viento, is one such leader.
Colleen, along with Julie Taber, El Viento’s Operations Manager, participated in a bootcamp on “Sharpening Your Business Model” taught by Blue Garnet and sponsored by the Fieldstone Foundation. The bootcamp focused on how impact and business models fit together, what the key components of a business model are, and how to measure success. Simply put, the bootcamp experience “was something to help us with our compass and how to move forward.” When we spoke with Colleen in May, she shared why this process has mattered so much.
Taking an integrated view
Blue Garnet: Ultimately, why did you feel it was important to spend time sharpening your business model?
Colleen: When you look at how typical nonprofits move forward with their “business plans,” they really see many different plans, rather than seeing how they are all related on a more basic level. We now have an overarching model and everything plugs into that. We were able to share our model with our board and get their buy-in, and to take this model to our funders.
Blue Garnet: Why was Board engagement in this process so essential?
Colleen: We were able to set realistic goals, down to the level of annual performance objectives. Before, our dashboard was all financial; now we are looking at multiple moving parts of the organization (e.g. kids’ retention rates, GPA). We’ve worked with the board to understand that our business model includes every aspect of the organization, not just finances.
Developing a growth mindset, creating mindshifts
Blue Garnet: Having an overarching business model really seems to have shifted the way you and your organization think.
Colleen: Yes, it has. The business model [framework] helped us look at our core competencies and refine what we think is good, but good wasn’t enough for us. We are constantly asking ourselves how we can be better. This model integrates all the work we do, and following it has helped us to grow. In fact, it has helped us better think through future growth – we can see where we are and use the model to help us grow in different areas. We’ve decided to put together an Academy, and we went back to the [business model] framework to help us think through this decision.
Blue Garnet: Can you give me another example?
Colleen: We’ve looked differently at our measures. We make a 10-year commitment to our kids, and over the years we used to lose about 50%, which most thought was a good retention rate. But we asked how we could become better. The business model helped us look at our core competencies, especially how we interact with the students, and as a result last year our retention rate was 94%.
Having the courage to change, taking risks
Blue Garnet: What does it mean to you to be an “impact thinker”?
Colleen: You have to be aware of the dollars that are coming in so you can make the most of that generosity. If you aren’t an impact thinker, you’re doing a disservice to your contributors. We encourage everyone at El Viento to be impact thinkers, from staff to board to the people we collaborate with out in the community. We have to make the most out of the tools, time, and dollars we have—knowing that has made us a little braver.
Blue Garnet: Were there any challenges to making this shift?
Colleen: Impact thinking means always looking, having an idea of where you want to be, but also having the courage to change to improve. People questioned our change, and yet we pushed forward and now are in a better place. A year later, they can see the improvements. Working on our business model helped forge the way.
Blue Garnet: Can you share a specific benefit of this change?
Colleen: We looked closely at what we were doing. For example, we decided to do fewer, more meaningful and educational field trips. That was a hard change, but everyone sees the benefits now. Having a tool for assessing decisions, particularly with staff, helps you analyze and understand what you’re doing to be most effective.
Blue Garnet: What were some other tangible actions or results from this work?
Colleen: We now use our business model as a tool to assess decisions. We have used our model to evaluate a new opportunity that arose to get reimbursed from school districts for the tutoring we provide. Going back to the model helped us understand that we could take this opportunity and make it a social enterprise. We are also doing a pilot of another social enterprise and are looking at tailoring the learning experience to be more proactive rather than reactive. We are using our business model to understand how what we learn from this pilot fits into El Viento’s long-term strategy for impact. Having the basics on how to assess these opportunities is very helpful.
We applaud Colleen for openly and generously sharing part of her leadership journey, as well as to El Viento for its tenacious commitment to helping children and young adults succeed. If you would like to dive deeper into how exceptional funders and nonprofit leaders become better “impact doers,” check your inbox in a few weeks for our Impact Doing Briefing or sign up to learn more about one of our upcoming Impact Accelerator workshops.
Related Links and Resources
- How El Viento makes a difference
- Blue Garnet’s Impact Accelerator Workshops
- Connect with El Viento on Twitter (@ElVientoFndtn)
 Blue Garnet defines three components of an organization’s business model: 1) what you do, 2) for whom you do it, 3) how you afford it.