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Tower Planning Study: Origins

2015-January 23
by Don Matteson, Chief Program Officer

Back in 2009, the Foundation wanted to find out whether the work it was interested in funding aligned with what front-line providers felt was needed. We were particularly interested in getting a handle on the behavioral health field -- mental health and substance abuse. We also wanted to see what would happen if we gave leaders some money to use to help improve operations or to try out something a little off the beaten path.

The usual approach to getting this type of information is to arrange meetings with lots of people who are immersed in the field and take up lots of their time asking questions and learning -- without any compensation aside from, maybe, a meal or a cup of coffee.

The need for more information coupled with our desire to be a little more fair to our informants gave rise to the Tower Planning Study (TPS).1 We went over our list of past behavioral health grantees and invited a handful of them to submit up to six one-page project ideas that could be implemented in one year or less for up to $50,000. The guidelines were intended to encourage applicants to think about ways to address field-wide issues (or organizational issues, if they reflected field-wide needs) in creative ways. We selected one idea from each list and worked with the grantees to develop a full proposal and work plan.

The projects varied widely, from work on case-management databases to expressive arts therapy to Six-Sigma quality-improvement initiatives. Some worked out spectacularly, others less so. In the end, though, we learned a few things:

    1.  It's amazingly difficult to get front-line providers to free their minds from the day-to-day difficulties facing their agencies. (This was a little surprising but, on reflection, probably shouldn't have been.)

      2.  You can get quite a lot of mileage out of $50,000 if it's used thoughtfully to build capacity.

      Some of the projects we funded aimed to provide a resource that might otherwise not be available:
      • Horizon Health Services, for instance, used its TPS opportunity to create an expressive arts therapy program for adolescents in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. Just last year, we filled our office with a display of stunning art created by expressive arts therapy program participants.
      • New Directions Youth and Family Services used TPS to install a high ropes course at its Wyndham Lawn Campus. Not only does New Directions use the ropes course with the youths it serves to help build leadership abilities and bolster confidence, but it also sometimes lets other local organizations use the course for staff team-building events.

      Other projects took a look inward and used the opportunity to engage in some strategic reflection and operational streamlining:

      • Child and Adolescent Treatment Services (CATS) took advantage of TPS to build its organizational capacity by training several staff members in Six Sigma. In what is perhaps the signature success of this initiative, CATS used what they learned from the Six Sigma training to (streamlining, cost savings).
      • CAB Recovery Services (since merged with the Northeast Healthcare to become Northeast Behavioral Health, which was then absorbed into the Lahey Health System as Lahey Behavioral Health) conducted an analysis of the community's need for adolescent drug prevention and treatment services.

      The last two projects took a swing at improving their information technology:

      • Catholic Charities welcomed the opportunity to improve its electronic medical records, integrating billing with its client information database and enhancing its reporting. While not the sexiest project we could have funded, it did advance our goal of helping our grantees shore up some of their operating infrastructure.
      • NFI Massachusetts sought to improve its project management software system to better manage its community outreach activities. Going a step further, NFI also included a community empowerment component that involved a youth advisory board that awarded small community grants. While the latter component didn't have quite the impact NFI Massachusetts hoped, the effort was exactly the kind of innovative thinking we'd hoped to see.

      Overall, it was an enlightening and rewarding initiative that helped us get a sense of some of the things that providers might do if they had a few moments to breathe and think. The initiative was useful enough to us that we revisited it again two years ago as we ventured out to learn about learning disabilities.

      In providing the background to the Tower Planning Study, this post (non-obviously) marks the first in a series of entries that describe our entry into the learning disabilities field. Next week, you'll read about how we connected with the handful of other foundations with a focus on learning disabilities. After that, you'll read about the Tower Planning Study for Learning Disabilities, and we'll wrap up with a description of our partnership with New Profit, a venture philanthropy shop located in Boston.

      Photo by splityarn
      Flickr: the 747 | 2494214255
      Creative Commons 2.0 Licensed

      1 There's actually a funny story about the name. I've long been a fan of the movie, "Office Space," which features a cubicle-based computer programmer being chastised repeatedly by different supervisors for using the wrong cover sheet on his TPS report.  When we were brainstorming names for the grant initiative, I got it in my head that we needed to find a way to get grantees to submit TPS reports. I ended up backing into the name "Tower Planning Study" as a joke, but the name stuck. For the record, we aren't super-picky about TPS cover sheets.

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