Case Studies

Culturally-affirming mental health provider navigates strategic opportunities

Open Paths Counseling Center believes that quality mental healthcare should be affordable, compassionate, and culturally-affirming.

The Need

Open Paths Counseling Center (Open Paths CC) seeks to eliminate the key barriers to psychotherapy for Los Angeles’ marginalized communities: financial, geographic, and cultural. As a sought-after provider of mental health services and therapist-training agency, Open Paths CC had been experiencing rapid growth. Interest in the model of culturally affirming counseling had been growing, then the pandemic, compounded by the protests for racial justice drove an increase in demand for mental health support that centered communities of color. Combined with multiple requests for partnerships from social service and educationally-focused nonprofits, Open Paths CC was facing both opportunities for growth and challenges with an already-stretched staff and infrastructure. They did not know how new, emerging opportunities would affect their financial outlook.

Open Paths Counseling Center sought a partner to:

  • Help them plan and navigate various strategic opportunities
  • Take recently completed work to define theory of change and make that vision real
  • Ground big-picture strategy with organizational realities and understand the financial impact of various growth opportunities.

The Support

I heard Way-Ting speak at a Center for Nonprofit Management conference many years ago... ten years later, when we had the funding for strategic planning, I knew I wanted to work with Blue Garnet.

Sierra Smith, Executive Director

Open Paths Counseling Center

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The work, which began in early 2021, initially entailed 3 key components:

  • Crystalize an organizational vision into a measurable goal that is concrete enough to develop a plan
  • Define and develop a business model that integrates anticipated needs and opportunities
  • Map a path for financial sustainability, using a pro forma financial model and resulting scenarios

Conducting our planning during the throes of a global pandemic was certainly a challenge. Changing conditions, opportunities, and even staffing, led to changes in the partnership between Open Paths CC and Blue Garnet. In the end, even with shifts in priorities throughout this time, we accomplished significant milestones:

  • Specificity in what success looks like. In conducting secondary research, we helped estimate the size and service gap (i.e., unmet need) in Open Paths CC’s target market/catchment area.
  • A comprehensive strategic direction. One that is more measurable, and that addresses (internal) infrastructure needed to support the future organization.
  • Strong articulation of the business model. Greater clarity around client segments (e.g., individuals vs. groups, payor type, etc.), and service provided to each, fed the building (and transition) of a customized, multi-year financial pro forma tool to help Open Paths CC understand implications of strategic decisions.

Previously, Open Paths CC had defined a North Star and a few programmatic “ingredients for success.” However, this did not offer enough guidance for prioritization and planning decisions. Blue Garnet facilitated (virtual) strategy sessions with staff and board leadership to create specificity that is actionable. The resulting strategic direction elevated organizational capacity as a key ingredient, critical to supporting its anticipated and planned growth.

Our role evolved over time, and Way-Ting Chen served as a strategic thought partner for the Executive Director, Sierra Smith. As a sounding board for Ms. Smith, Way-Ting helped her think through elements of Open Paths CC’s business model (see above) at a level of detail needed to support strategic decision making. These discussions fed into the financial forecasting tool that Way-Ting developed, illustrating the anticipated impact of various opportunities on the organization.

The Impact

With Blue Garnet asking lots of questions while building the pro forma, Open Paths CC really had to crystallize our thinking on growth options. Way-Ting was so flexible, continuously adjusting the pro forma as various opportunities started shaping up. And Way-Ting’s brain is amazing—she can think through things so logically, putting numbers and stats to relational work.

Sierra Smith, Executive Director

Open Paths Counseling Center

Executive Director Sierra Smith reflects that Open Paths CC’s engagement with Blue Garnet was instrumental in helping her guide the organization through challenging times. The thought partnership with Way-Ting also helped her weigh new, emerging opportunities, by assessing their long-term financial impact on the organization. Having Way-Ting as a trusted, neutral advisor helped shed new light on long-term internal questions, like the costs associated with training therapists and how that relates to client needs.

Since Blue Garnet’s project with Open Paths CC, the organization has continued to grow and expand their reach. They are building out “Open Paths Academy,” a social enterprise project Way-Ting recommended after seeing how many outside entities were inquiring about mental health support for their teams during the pandemic shut down. They will also soon provide high-quality mental health education to corporate entities. To diversify their revenue streams, and with the support of Cedars-Sinai and the California Community Foundation’s Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative, Open Paths CC is partnering with another counseling center to build out a billing entity, which other small counseling centers can also use.

Also, at this writing, Open Paths CC is in the process of becoming a group MediCal provider. Ms. Smith is confident that the pro forma tool will be invaluable in calculating the needed data on therapist, clients, and revenue numbers. Sierra shares that having strategized with Way-Ting, and now being able to use this financial planning tool in-house, helps her make decisions, along with the Board, for Open Paths CC’s future.

Reflection

Coming alongside a community-centered organization like Open Paths Counseling Center, with a visionary learner as a leader, was meaningful, energizing, and rewarding for us.

Way-Ting Chen, Co-Founder and Senior Partner

Blue Garnet

Way-Ting reflects that, having grown up in a culture where seeking mental health care is taboo, helping Open Paths CC reach more people with culturally affirming, quality counseling meant a lot personally. “Rather than apply a white, European-centric approach to everyone, Open Paths CC contextualizes counseling and reduces barriers to mental health care. As a result, it opens up life-changing services to people who have historically been underserved. As we helped Open Paths CC move the needle in South LA, it helped us move our needle of increasing the ability of leaders and their teams to positively impact Southern California.”

We look back with a sense of heart-warming pride. We are honored to have supported Sierra and the rest of Open Paths CC through this key organizational inflection point – bridging what the organization and the community needed most amidst the disruptions of COVID, with the anticipated needs and opportunities in an uncertain future.

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