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Leading with Lives on the Line

Imagine the overwhelming fear and anxiety a child feels when neglected or abused by those meant to care for them. Then consider the stress that same child feels when trying to understand and trust the legal and support network of strangers who intervene when they are so small and powerless—and you can get a sense of what far too many children experience every day. CASA, the abbreviation for Court Appointed Special Advocates, is a national network of community volunteers who are thoroughly trained to advocate and speak up for children who need help securing a safe home and navigating the court system. When the stakes are so high (in some cases a matter of life and death) strong leadership and a clear vision are absolutely critical.

CASA of Northwest Arkansas, an independent nonprofit organization with the mission of “ensuring a consistent voice, safe home, and promising future for children in foster care” recognized a need to embark upon some significant strategic planning. They reached out to Milestone Leadership for help with carving out a path and fine-tuning tactics to meet a very lofty goal the agency had set in 2015: to provide a CASA advocate to serve every child in foster care in a four-county area by 2020. With guidance from Milestone, CASA of NWA staff and board members began a full commitment to the rigorous process of developing an aggressive strategic plan to meet the big goal they’d been working toward for years, as well as determine what would come after that accomplishment—while also updating their mission and spelling out the vision and values that have guided their work since 1997.

Knowing 2020 was nearing faster than anyone cared to admit, the team dug deep to formally articulate what they knew themselves, while gathering additional input from over 100 stakeholders to help further define the organization’s current state and future potential. According to CASA of NWA’s executive director, Crystal Vickmark, the process of information gathering and then putting CASA’s mission and vision down on paper proved to be surprisingly emotional and transformative. The group expanded its objective to not just support every child in foster care by 2020, but to embrace a vision that every child in foster care will have a fierce and skilled champion by their side.

The team dedicated itself to create a twelve-month plan with a step-by-step document to take the organization to its end goal and beyond. This process helped change the lens through which CASA of NWA looked at itself and its work, and staff members passionate about particular objectives readily stepped forward to lead strategic efforts around five key topics. Every Monday brought a status meeting to ensure things were staying on track and to distill new information. After six months of focused commitment, a meaningful plan emerged to support CASA’s planned direction.

In the end, a plan is only as good as its results—and in this case, the results were much better than good:

Well ahead of schedule, CASA of NWA staff, board and volunteers shattered their goal of actively supporting every child in foster care in four counties—nearing 1,000. The team was able to work with renewed purpose, guided by a clear strategic roadmap, to reach a milestone that will now and in the future impact hundreds of children at enormous risk. CASA’s strategic plan was created through an inclusive, thought-provoking process and it has provided the structure of incremental actions needed to keep everyone moving forward together with singular purpose.

At Milestone Leadership, we know leaders worth following have the best chance to excel when they have access to great tools. A strategic planning process should never be a brief exercise to produce a slick document that gathers dust on a shelf. A strategic plan should serve as one of the most important tools a leader can possess when guiding a team—more than just a document, but actually a living, dynamic manual for future success that clearly reflects the organization’s culture, purpose, challenges and opportunities.

We salute the CASA of NWA team for doing the hard work of critically examining itself and finding a path to meeting such an important goal for the whole Northwest Arkansas community. Being part of this process was a true honor for Milestone and we are watching with anticipation to see what else this amazing nonprofit organization goes on to accomplish. If you are interested to learn more about CASA, please visit https://www.nwacasa.org/.


Kelly Hale Syer
Milestone Leadership

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