Basic Rights Institute

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To provide specificity and detail while honoring client confidentiality, we have disguised the identity of this client. 

The Basic Rights Institute (BRI) was at a crossroads. Despite its achievements—the 25-year-old advocacy organization has won countless legal victories for social and economic rights—staff morale was dangerously low, and a strategic plan was gathering dust.

BRI came to MAG seeking a wide range of organization-strengthening interventions: senior team-building and leadership development; implementation of its strategic plan; and a “cultural diversity” effort to help create and manage a more inclusive organization.

But our initial assessment interviews revealed a deeper set of concerns. Staff complained of disrespect from managers, inadequate supervision and feedback, high levels of interpersonal and interdepartmental conflict, and poor interdepartmental coordination.  Further inquiry revealed two deep-rooted problems.  First, leadership was adrift: the management team lacked clarity about roles and priorities, and included several members with serious deficits in management and leadership capacity. Second, the organization’s strategic plan lacked specificity and relevance; few employees felt ownership of the plan or used it to guide their work. 

Accordingly, MAG proceeded along two distinct, but related, tracks. To address leadership problems and staff morale, we helped BRI change its organizational culture through management coaching and conflict resolution training. And, to reinvigorate the organization’s sense of purpose, we worked to design a strategic planning process that fully engaged the creativity of staff at all levels, ensuring their ongoing ownership of the work.

Changing the culture

The strategy process modeled a culture built around team building, learning, and openness to the outside world—a tall order!
— BRI, Executive Director

Our immediate task was to build a high-functioning management team and foster a culture where communication and collaboration is the norm. To that end, we held all-staff trainings in conflict resolution, conducted workshops for management teams and coached individual managers. These interventions enabled BRI to:

  • Clarify collective and individual roles
  • Improve communication and coordination
  • Rethink staffing of key managerial positions, replacing chronically underperforming managers
  • Attend to the human impact of transitions, managerial processes, and decisions
  • Create more transparency and mutuality in organizational communications

A shared strategy

These initial interventions were essential to stabilize the situation, but inadequate on their own to address the deeper organizational problems surfaced in the assessment.  MAG firmly believed that BRI would only get back on track by engaging staff to co-create the organization’s goals and strategies.  To achieve this, MAG worked with a joint board/staff planning group to design a strategic planning process that included:

  • Assessment interviews with staff, board, funders, collaborating organizations, and content experts
  • Interdisciplinary working groups tasked with developing innovative yet realistic ways to pursue BRI’s long-term goals, while ensuring the flexibility to adapt to rapidly shifting circumstances

Strength in diversity

Initially, MAG was asked to address diversity in a standalone effort, unrelated to strategic planning and general management. But we see diversity as integral to building a strong organization.  That’s why MAG worked to integrate diversity concerns into all stages of the strategic planning process, by:

  • Including diversity metrics in the qualitative and quantitative tools used in the strategy assessment
  • Creating a strategy working group focused on diversity, whose membership overlapped with that of all of the other working groups--ensuring that every long-term goal was considered through a “diversity lens”
  • Developing a staff-generated vision of inclusiveness and diversity that generated enormous excitement and opened people’s minds to the importance of partnering across many kinds of difference
  • Integrating a detailed diversity plan, with timed steps and measures of success, into the overall BRI strategic plan
  • Assigning a highly regarded VP-level staff member to address diversity, ensuring continued commitment of resources and follow-through

Back on track

These interventions proved transformational for BRI. The management/staff trainings produced a strong leadership team and a culture of mutual respect and collaboration. The planning process served to lift up new leaders throughout the organization, and broke down interdepartmental barriers, catalyzing new partnerships and approaches. Because staff were fully involved in the planning process, they developed a deep sense of ownership of the final product. And, by thoroughly integrating diversity into the strategic plan, we helped create an inclusive organization that can fully engage the talents of all.

Moreover, the strategy produced by this innovative planning process—which brings new thinking to bear on old and intractable problems—has generated enough excitement that the organization was able to raise over three million dollars in three months to fund major portions of the new work.  On the strength of its new direction and energy, BRI also successfully recruited a world-renowned expert to head up its largest program department—putting BRI on track to regain its place as an effective, cutting-edge advocate for basic rights.

[MAG] was utterly disciplined in guiding us through the dialogue and risk-taking needed to move BRI forward—while remaining patient, flexible, and resourceful in dealing with the inevitable reactions and hurdles we faced. Beyond that—and equally important—MAG was able to combine this level of standard-setting with an extremely supportive and collaborative relationship—not only with me but with the entire staff.
— BRI, Executive Director