Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Business Planning with Women

Over the past year, we've been working with a local business woman who needed to change her business to accommodate changes in life circumstances. We've subsequently been approached by two other women in similar situations, although different lines of business, to do similar work with them. In all cases, the women felt that the usual business planning resources available were not a good fit. They were choosing to struggle on their own to think their way through the dilemma facing them rather than 'take advantage of' the usual resources. This was tantamount to their being disqualified from publicly funded services, without the services being held accountable -- or even knowing about -- the way in which these business women were excluded as clients.

It strikes me, as I write, that this is similar to the situation we are involved with in the Women's Charter project: clients are excluded because of how the institution does business but the clients are 'at fault' because they don't take advantage of what is available to them. Helping an institution find a way to dialogue with people who could be but are not their clients is a difficult assignment -- as the Sherbourne Health Centre is finding in the Women's Charter project -- that only the highly motivated will undertake. We don't have a pre-contemplation situation here, at least not at present.

Therefore the work comes from the other perspective, the disentitled client -- although none of the women who have approached us would likely describe themselves in that way. They are established and respected members of the community -- but perhaps not established and respected in the business community. Not disrespected; more likely 'under the radar'.

The woman with whom we've been working for a year has a successful massage therapy business. Over 12 years, it has become steady throughout the year (always a factor in our community, which is 'cottage country' with a 4-fold, or more, increase in population over the summer months) and as much work as our client could manage. Because the business is 'piece work' and the pricing structure is largely established by professional bodies, there is a natural revenue ceiling. It is also physically demanding work, and as our client aged, she was not able to manage as many clients a day as she had in earlier days. And she was less willing to sacrifice family life to work evenings or weekends. But she wanted and needed to increase her income.

She had introduced a number of changes by the time she began to work with us. In fact, the first order of business was us recommending that she apply for a grant from 'the usual resources' in order to hire us to work with her. We wrote the proposal for her signature on spec. She was given the grant with very little discussion. The granters were mildly surprised that she planned to work with us, as they hadn't thought this was our line of business. They 'knew' Michael as a writer and volunteer and me as a government-funded social service type, none of which said 'business' to them. However, each of us has a strong local reputation as people who make things happen, so they were willing to take a chance. We are now on their 'accepted' list of consultants.

Our client had already attempted to engage a second massage therapist to share her business and space and had had limited success. She wanted to develop a clearer framework for sharing her business. And to make money out of her physical space, which had untapped potential, not all of which would be absorbed by the addition of another massage therapist. We helped identify the negotiating elements: what kind of skill set, what financial arrangements, what work arrangements, how important is personal chemistry, how to protect and enhance her 'brand' (and what was that brand), etc..

We developed a generic contract for sharing space and support services to help her clarify and quantify these elements in her decision making. This was mostly useful in increasing her comfort with doing 'hard-nosed business' in what she saw primarily as sharing her 'baby', her business and physical space, with a new partner. Balancing head and heart: the usual woman's dilemma! But not one that many business planners are comfortable with working through.

We also developed a mechanism for our client to analyze rigorously her core clientele. She is analytical by nature, but wasn't confident in her conclusions. We developed a data collection instrument from which she gleaned non-identifying information from active files of her core clientele over 12 years of business, a full-population study of considerable size. This was time-consuming for her to do and took quite a while to complete. She found the process itself interesting and useful. The analysis was a lot of fun (for me). It ratifies the rationale for the decisions she has already taken and should give her confidence going forward -- both in her plans and in her capacity to correctly analyze her situation.

We also developed a simple survey questionnaire for her clients to complete in the waiting room, asking what auxiliary services they would like to see in the community, perhaps as an addition to her business. This, too, was merely confirming the validity of data collection she has always done informally. She took it the next step by organizing and hosting (in her beautiful space) a meeting of other massage therapists in the community (pointedly not including those who called themselves massage therapists but who were not qualified professionals) to share information about the services available and to strengthen referral patterns.

Before we began working together, our client had entered an informal apprenticeship as a travel agent as a potential second business that was compatible with her massage therapy business and had the capacity to increase her earnings. During the time we worked together, she 'graduated' herself from her mentor and registered independently as a travel agent with a new firm. She applied for a skill-development grant to take the required training and offset the substantial fee (and received something, although less than she was hoping for, as the training fee was interpreted as a purchase of franchise). She also applied for and received an interest-free loan to get broad-band internet access at her home, so that she could do more of her travel agent work at home.

The final piece of work that remains is to write The Business Plan, which is a deliverable of the grant. The template that the granter provides is not a good fit with the work we have done: it's all about head and nothing about heart. I see that as an indicator of the process of how business women (or some, at least) are excluded and need to figure a way to reflect this to the granting agency without alienating them.

This is particularly important because two other local women have indicated interest in hiring us to work with them in very similar ways. One of them approached us to help her make the application for a business plan. She, too, has one successful business that cannot grow to meet her financial requirements, and the desire to develop a second business that turns a 'hobby' about which she is passionate into a source of income, which will involve asking people to pay for something that she has always made available for the sheer love of it.

However, this woman found the granting organization to be challenging to work with as she went through the application process. Although she was eventually given the grant, she refused it - without explanation - rather than allow them to be involved in her progress going forward. She insisted on paying me for my role in the application process, which began with bringing its availability to her attention, hearing her plans at length and translating them into the grant proposal. My belief is that my listening and translation was all she needed to affirm her intention and capability to launch her new business. Ironically, the granters may have been correct when they questioned why she wanted to hire F&A when she was already an acknowledged expert on the business she was proposing to develop. In her head she is; in her heart, she wasn't sure. But now she is. I plan to purchase her new product from her this fall.

The third woman who has indicated interest in working with F&A to do a business plan is, once again, involved in a successful business but wants to modify it to accommodate life stage and circumstances. Unlike the other two women, she is very aware of the granting agency and very comfortable with applying for a grant. The impediment for her was that she wasn't aware of anyone that she wanted to do the work with -- until she affirmed that we did this kind of work and were acceptable to the granter. It will be interesting to see how the granter deals with her application when the time comes... and how she deals with what they do.

It seems to me that by making ourselves available to do business planning locally, we have inadvertently drawn attention to how the business world works by posing an alternative. F&A itself was the recipient of a business planning grant, at the point when we were preparing for me to leave paid employment and become a principal partner in F&A. We hired a woman who worked for a sister organization to our granting agency. She did a good business plan, based on our input at the time. Ironically, we've never used the resources she provided. It assumed that we would grow the business by marketing ourselves to take advantage of the credentials and interests I brought. But in fact, the market network in health promotion that Michael established has welcomed me as well, and my network in the community has claimed my skills in ways I did not anticipate.

Again, it seems that F&A's business planning process spoke to the head and ignored the heart. My perception of myself in the business world was clearly not in line with the business world's perception of me. Actually, in retrospect I think I did not have a perception of myself as a business person. I saw myself as an experienced and skilled manager of people, an administrator with proven capacity to get and manage funds, someone able to conceptualize, resource, implement and disseminate community-based research (a combination of skills that I think is not captured by saying I am a researcher). And maybe some other things. But they didn't add up to what my business should be. I think if our business planning partner had had the skills and interest to listen to me as much as I have listened to the the women we've worked with, we might have derived a more useful document. Or perhaps the business plan document is not in itself important, but only evidence of a process that is more or less helpful.

I don't want to downplay or disregard Michael's role in this business-planning part of our business. Although I take the lead in these local contracts, he is the lead in developing strategies for funding for our social inclusion projects. He has an intuition for positioning and describing work in a way that joins together partners who didn't realize they had a confluence of interests. He sells well. I listen well. Together we're a great team!

And now I need to decide how to write The Business Plan... for women, by women... in a men's world... I thought we were past that!!!!! Not!

Women's Charter

The Women's Charter project came out of Count Us In! Inclusion and Homeless Women in Downtown East Toronto (Phase 1). That project (final report is on our website) concluded with a 10-point Charter for Offering Services to Women, that is, 10 things that an agency or service would do that would allow the women it served, in particular marginalized women, to feel included. What was envisioned was a Charter statement that agencies would post as a testament to its intent to serve women well, much as the gay movement has marketed the rainbow sticker which agencies can post to show they are 'gay-friendly'.

The Charter Project took this the next logical step, which was to explore how organizations or agencies could move toward 'qualifying' to post the Charter. Ontario Women's Health Network (OWHN) negotiated for funding from Public Health Agency of Canada. F&A worked with the Asset Mapping Research Project (AMRP) of the Toronto Christian Resource Centre, Coordinator Adonica Huggins and Inclusion Researchers Farida Athumani and Marcia Jarman, to engage two agencies located in and serving their neighbourhood, the Regent Park area, in the process of self-evaluating and making changes that would allow them to measure their progress toward practicing selected Charter Items.

The project took place in April through June 2008. Adonica Huggins used her collegial connections among Regent Park service providers to recruit two agencies willing, over a very brief time span, to initiate a process of selecting one or more Charter Items and devising a procedure that would allow them to bench-mark the 'friendliness' of their current practice in relation to the Item, and to measure progress going forward.

The two agencies who volunteered were 614, a small social service program run by the Salvation Army; and the Sherbourne Health Centre (SHC), a large, new and rapidly growing health service offering primary care, a broad spectrum of outreach services, and a brief-stay Infirmary for discharged hospital patients who required follow-up care not available in their usual living circumstances.

We were very pleased that two so very different institutions chose to work with us. Because we had the capacity to work with only two or three agencies, it was important that they represent as much diversity as possible if we were to illuminate the process by which organizations become 'Charter qualified'. We are also pleased that two other agencies have indicated interest, and we are at present working with one of them, a large social services office, to explore what can be done to replicate the process with reduced and pro bono support.

The report has been forwarded to the funder and we are hoping there will be an official launch in the fall. OWHN is anxious to get funding to resource the process with other agencies in the geographic region, working toward an understanding of how a network of agencies and organizations that share serving a disadvantaged population comes to embrace (or resist) a change process.

The work was fascinating. Adonica, in the recruitment phase, stipulated that the organization had to be willing to have all levels of the organization -- i.e., governance, management, staff, volunteers and where possible, service users -- engage in the process. This was challenging from a logistics perspective (particularly given the tight time schedule) -- and very likely, the fact that an agency was able to meet this requirement was an indication that relatively good vertical communication and a positive attitude to the intent already existed. We make no methodological apologies: in any change process, one starts with the willing and goes from there.

Our appreciation of the importance of broad representation in the decision-making process grew with our experience. The interplay of perspectives was invaluable in creating a process that could be implemented within existing resources. Our impression was that the agencies we worked with already had a healthy appreciation for the synergy of different perspectives, but it may be that for some agencies, this experience itself would initiate change within the agency culture.

Both agencies had mechanisms in place for consulting with service users, and both of them made changes to the mechanism in the course of this work. 614 has a long-established practice of recruiting volunteers from among service-users and in some cases hiring them as staff -- a kind of 'career path' for some service users. It decided to initiate a more formal quarterly 'village square' meeting with service users to seek feedback on its service delivery, and furthermore, to look at ways to increase participation beyond the core group of service users. Sherbourne Health Centre, faced with the problem of resourcing data collection among women who might be appropriate users of their Infirmary and from service providers who are likely referrers of women to the service, embraced the concept of using women from among their service population to do this work -- a variation of the Inclusion Research model. Furthermore, the AMRP offered to help select and train these women, in conjunction with SHC staff and volunteers. This plan will be implemented in late summer / fall.

An aspect of the work that I found particularly heart-warming was the enthusiasm with which staff embraced the opportunity to improve their service. It's difficult to work with people who are constantly embattled with seemingly insurmountable problems. It's even more difficult to be seen to be doing a good job. Power-abusing happens. So does bad service. And goodness knows, all institutions breed their own impediments to human exchange over time. But many people in the service system long to do their job differently, more respectfully, more efficiently, more effectively. In many ways, they battle with the same problems that plague their clients, albeit from a different perspective. The conceptualization of this project was based in a belief that people who work with poor people would rather do a good job than a bad job, and had expertise they would make available if given the opportunity. That belief was vindicated by our experience. This is another variation of 'start with the willing'.

I also felt quite validated in my long-held belief about the importance of positive reinforcement as a way to create the conditions under which change takes place. We've always recognized this when it comes to personal counselling - I think the current phrase is 'strength-based intervention', but some variation has been around as long as I've been in the business. But we often think differently when it comes to organizational change. Or we act as if we think differently. We attack, embarrass, make a case. But organizational change, like personal change, comes from a belief and a motivation that better things are possible. And that is nurtured by recognition of progress to date, including trying things that haven't worked or don't any longer work.

In any case, this project included the enjoyment of hearing many innovative and creative things that were being tried to make service users feel more included and accepted. The agencies that volunteered were at what a therapist would call the 'pre-contemplation' phase of the work: they'd already recognized at some level that they wanted to improve their service. The challenge as this project moves forward will be to find efficient ways to move recalcitrant agencies into pre-contemplation phase. I think we'll be looking at collegial networks at work, moving individuals and agencies, one at a time, from "wouldn't it be great if we could..." to "we've got what we need to..."

In this project, we were open to working with agencies and services that dealt with men as well as women, even though the original Count Us In! project was very specifically woman-centric. We believe that implementing a Charter for Offering Services to Women would also improve service to men. But to fine-tune the Charter, to begin the process of rooting it in the service network that serves the Regent Park community, to demonstrate that significant change is possible within existing resources, we needed to start in the middle. Which is what we did: what is more 'middle' than a health centre and a church-based social service?

We'll post the report, or a link to it, as soon as it becomes available. If you're interested in what the Charter Items are, check the Count Us In! report.