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Lessons on Implementing a New Strategic Plan from St. David’s Foundation

Becky Pastner and William Buster are leaders at St. David’s Foundation, the largest health-focused funder in Central Texas. I worked closely with Becky, the chief impact and metrics officer, and William, the executive vice president of community investments, when St. David’s Foundation engaged FSG to develop a strategic planning process in 2016.

They began implementing their new strategic plan earlier this year, and I caught up with them recently to hear how they are living into their new direction and what they have learned from the process.

In designing your strategic planning effort, you were clear that investing time in engaging operations and program staff throughout the process was important.  Do you think that has paid off and if so, how?

William Buster: There is a lot of enthusiasm across the organization about our new direction. During the strategic planning process, we held 2 cross-departmental workshops with our senior leadership, the community investments team, program staff, communications, human resources, evaluation, and IT teams.  

These workshops allowed teams to discuss potential challenges around rolling out the new strategic direction for specific communities and organizations, and really dig into the data and community health issues to identify where we could have the greatest impact. Now that we are beginning to implement these changes, our staff is really excited and ready to hit the ground running.

Becky Pastner: That said, in retrospect, I think we could have done even more to involve our full staff in the strategic planning process. We found that everyone was eager to be deeply involved—more than we had anticipated. Moving forward, we want to devote time early on to thinking about how our processes can be as inclusive as possible for everyone across the organization.

Developing a new strategic direction may require developing new competencies and adopting different philanthropic roles and tools. How has the Foundation grown and adapted in order implement the new plan?

WB: We have tried to be very precise about how we add new tools and processes throughout this shift, and aim to ensure that each is truly useful and impactful. Ultimately, these new processes have to fit into how our people think and how they actually do their work.

People’s plates are very full. We need to make room for new things. In doing so, we also recognize the importance of directing our resources to programs and projects that will advance our strategic priorities to make Central Texas the healthiest community in the world.

BP: One tool we have recently adopted is a “Strategy Screen,” a 1-page document program officers use as they are considering new funding partnerships. We organized a taskforce of staff to develop this document after we had reworked our RFP process, and it’s really a tool to help program officers organize and track their thoughts about potential grantees from the beginning of the process.  

The Strategy Screen includes questions on how this applicant’s proposed work aligns with our vision and how it fits into one or more of our focus areas, so it creates that discipline around our strategic plan. But it also creates the space for program officers to step back and consider different angles, like if an organization doesn’t fall clearly into one focus area because it bridges a number of areas. That could be a more impactful partnership for us in the long run.

Your 3 new strategic priorities, “healthiest care, healthiest places, and healthiest people,” include more explicit references to the structural and social determinants of health, such as affordable housing and food insecurity. How did the community respond to this expanded view?

WB: Focusing on the structural and social determinants of health is an emerging idea in Central Texas. People increasingly recognize and understand the importance of housing and transportation in our community, which has experienced explosive growth. For folks who have been pushed further out due to this growth and greater costs of living in the past few years, there is a real connection between things like affordable housing and public transportation and everyone’s wellbeing.

And while this recognition has been growing, so has the recognition that addressing these issues requires some new thinking and new ways of doing things.

BP: As a major funder in the region, we want to be intentional about identifying what capacities organizations need to do this work well, and how we can support them in building these capacities 

Your strategic evolution requires thoughtful transitioning out of areas of longstanding investment. How did you approach the shift with longstanding grantees?

WB: We are a place-based funder and the largest health-focused funder in the region. And with that comes long-standing grant partners in the community. We have aimed to be very thoughtful, patient, and transparent about this transition with all our partners.

BP: When we announced the new strategic direction earlier this year, we convened a half-day workshop for our grant partners where they could have in-depth group discussions with us to learn about our new focus areas, hear from us why we chose them and what we are hoping to achieve. We really wanted people to hear about it in person.  We also invited board members of our grantees, community members, and other partners to an evening session where we introduced the strategy and invited questions and ideas.

We also had individual conversations with grant partners whose current programs may not align with our current vision. We have been very clear that just because we may not fund one program in the future, this isn’t necessarily the end of the relationship with an organization. It could be an opportunity for a new, more impactful partnership.  We also offered capacity building opportunities to these grantees.

WB: Finally, we built in a 12-18-month transition period for all our grants we were not planning to renew. We recognize our role as one of the largest funders for some grantees, so we knew we couldn’t just pull back immediately. That wouldn’t be responsible.  We know that although we never promise dollars forever, organizations rely on us and we need to give people time to plan and transition. In reality, our grant partners are operating businesses. If we don’t pay attention to and respect the business aspect of their work, it’s going to be harder to bring them along with what we’re trying to do—they won’t hear us or see our vision in the same way.

What advice would you have for other organizations that are looking to evolve their grantmaking portfolio? What are you most excited about looking forward?

WB: Change is hard. The shift can be challenging internally and creates uncertainty for grant partners. We’d encourage other organizations to be mindful of these uncertainties on the front end, and plan for it accordingly—being respectful that change doesn’t happen overnight.

BP: Looking forward, perhaps more than ever, we believe there is a real opportunity to achieve impact at a local, community, and regional level. We’re excited to work collaboratively with our grant partners to move the needle on issues affecting our Central Texas region, and look forward to the journey ahead.

Learn more about FSG’s work with St. David’s Foundation >

Learn more about FSG’s U.S. Health practice >

About St. David’s Foundation
St. David’s Foundation believes good health returns great benefits to the community. Through a unique partnership, the Foundation reinvests proceeds from St. David’s HealthCare to help build the healthiest community in the world. The Foundation helps people in every corner of the community through signature programs and collaborations with more than 60 nonprofit partners.

Lauren A. Smith

Managing Director