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Randy YoungJune 07, 2024
A homeless person in San Francisco sits on a corner as steam emerges from a vent Oct. 22, 2021. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

Few American cities face a more daunting homeless crisis than San Francisco, where on any given day 38,000 people walk the streets and settle into doorways and back alleys without food or shelter. On top of that challenge, the Bay Area is home to a rapidly growing immigrant population from a host of countries, whose members are often in need of day-to-day help simply to survive.

At the heart of this city’s burgeoning demand for social services, ranging from housing and meals to legal assistance and education, is Catholic Charities San Francisco. In order to affect the lives of its struggling constituents in a meaningful way, the agency has had to dramatically change the way it manages and delivers a constellation of assistance programs through its 500 employees and $60- to $90-million annual budget, among the largest in the Catholic Charities USA network.

Rising to help meet that formidable challenge to Catholic Charities, not just in San Francisco but in its agencies across the country, is a new nonprofit executive management training program. As of this spring, the program will have brought top-tier business school knowledge and skills to local leaders at nearly all of Catholic Charities’ 167 offices. The program gives Catholic Charities the opportunity to break from more than a century of entrenched management rules and regulations and move the nation’s largest purveyor of social services to a new business model characterized by best practices, strategic thinking and, above all, the relentless need for change that nearly every office is now facing.

“The executive-level training enabled me to develop a robust theory of change across our agency, and that’s helped us to ensure the sustainability of key assistance programs and services,” said Ellen Hammerle, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities San Francisco. One program that has already benefited, she points out, is the Center for Immigration, Legal and Support Services. Traditionally beset by fiscal challenges, that center revamped the structure of its extensive legal services program to make it more of a business model than a social services model, guided by the innovative thinking and strategic tools that Dr. Hammerle acquired from her nonprofit management training.

The need for advanced, C.E.O.-caliber education is echoed across the Catholic Charities network.

“We have amazing leaders in our Catholic Charities offices, but many don’t have the background of running what amounts to an independent business and don’t have the financial resources to get that in-depth training,” explains Anthony Sciacca, executive vice president and chief development officer of Catholic Charities USA. “Our C.E.O.s are thrilled that a course of this magnitude is being offered to them, and at the conclusion, they can’t wait to take what they have learned back to their respective organizations for implementation.”

Putting the ‘Theory of Change’ to Work

Catholic Charities in Green Bay, Wis., is closely following that playbook. It is deploying theory of change tools that Karmen Lemke, director of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Green Bay, gleaned from her advanced business training to target humanitarian services that will have the greatest impact on resource-poor communities in some 16 mostly rural counties of Northeast Wisconsin.

“It’s here, beyond the borders of Green Bay, where some of the greatest social needs exist, and where our unique presence can fulfill what God is calling on us to do to serve those most in need,” said Ms. Lemke, who manages a staff of 35 and an annual budget between $4.5 million and $5 million. “My academic training is helping us to connect our goals with our mission and to draw on data-driven information and resources wherever possible to make those important decisions. It will also be helpful in measuring and communicating the impact of our outreach activities.”

Laura Deitrick, director of the Nonprofit Institute at the University of San Diego, which designed and delivers the certificate-granting program, underscores its ability to change the mindset of participants.

“These leaders are running very successful organizations, but a program like this is designed to move their thinking to a more strategic level, which could mean greater engagement with their boards, for example, or figuring out what measurable outcomes they want to achieve in the community and then writing a budget that will get them there,” Dr. Deitrick said. “I’ve been deeply impressed with the willingness of these C.E.O.s to think differently and to recognize that there are other ways they could be working smarter.”

Robin Dempsey, head of Catholic Charities in Anchorage, Ala., emerged from the course with “some wonderful new ideas” in areas like increasing board engagement, restructuring committees and mentoring new board members.

“The structure of the class was terrific because roughly half of it was devoted to finance, where C.E.O.s like myself were probably the weakest,” said Ms. Dempsey, whose $20 million annual budget funds 10 social service programs, including shelters for the homeless and women with children, as well as the only resettlement agency in the state.

The founding of an executive level training program that could showcase a new managerial and leadership paradigm for Catholic Charities agencies was itself the product of a rigorous academic-level exercise. The program’s creator, Thomas Healey, had already helped develop the Toolbox for Pastoral Management, bringing to more than a thousand pastors nationwide a critical new set of business and administrative competencies through a week-long, on-site learning program. He next set his educational sights on Catholic Charities and began interviewing institutions of higher learning that could make the ambitious plan a reality, before selecting the University of San Diego’s highly regarded Nonprofit Institute.

“The thought of offering executive managerial training to the nonprofit world is quite compelling, and Catholic Charities, with its huge team of talented but not always business-trained agency heads, was a natural choice for this program,” said Mr. Healey, a retired investment banker and now a senior fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “The idea was presented to C.C.U.S.A.’s national leadership team, and they were extremely receptive.”

Despite jam-packed schedules on their home turf, participants have willingly carved out time for the course’s 180 hours of virtual and onsite classes, led by University of San Diego instructors. “They always tied these lessons back to our mission and outcomes, and that was a new perspective for me in terms of ensuring that every program is measured against its goals and what we actually achieved through the service,” said Dr. Hammerle, who holds a law degree and a master’s in clinical psychology. “It’s much more an integrated approach, and I found that very different and inspiring.”

Creating an online community of practice

One solution advanced by the program that has resonated particularly well with Catholic Charities leaders is enhanced communication. More specifically, this means seizing the opportunity to interface with and learn from their colleagues across the country who confront the same challenges they do. Facilitating that discourse is a special feature of the program known as the “capstone project.” Small teams of participants are formed early in the course to work collaboratively as “consultants,” taking a deep dive into the financial records, strategic and fundraising plans, bylaws and board development activities of specific Catholic Charities agencies that may have struggled in certain areas. During the final week of the course, held on-site at the U.S.D. campus, these teams reinforce earlier learnings by preparing a detailed “memo”—not unlike a mini-strategic plan—to their “client” organizations that includes a thoughtful analysis and actionable recommendations for improvements. These projects are also presented to the entire class and instructors on the last day of the four-day capstone experience.

“What made it incredibly meaningful was knowing others in my capstone group were doing the same work as me, and that every conversation we had gave me the opportunity to get insights on their approaches and to share best practices,” said Ms. Dempsey from the Anchorage office, who previously worked as a federal investigator performing national security checks before earning a master’s degree in clinical counseling. “I made some really solid connections—people I would reach out to again in a heartbeat.”

Ms. Lemke also had high praise for the networking experience the program offered, particularly through the small consultancy cohorts that began meeting online and completed their work during the onsite capstone event. “Our meetings involved lots of moral support, where we talked among ourselves about the unique things happening in each of our agencies,” she said. “That was extremely valuable, and something I hope we can continue in the future.”

Building on that course momentum, national leaders developed an electronic portal known as CCConnect, designed to be a continuation of the learning experience by which graduates can engage readily with the University of San Diego faculty, the national office of Catholic Charities USA and, of course, with one another.

“We feel like we’ve just scratched the surface of something truly great for our entire organization,” Mr. Sciacca said of the overall executive management training program. “In fact, we’re already hearing from our agencies that they’d love to expand the training to other members of their staffs.”

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