Yonkers-Based Leake & Watts: A Westchester Turnaround Tale

Yonkers-based children and families service agency Leake & Watts goes from near-bust to notable boom.


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Leake & Watts Executive Director Alan Mucatel at the Leake & Watts Ames Early Childhood Learning Center in Yonkers.

Photo courtesy of Leake & Watts

Everyone loves a successful business turnaround story. And when the organization that has been turned around helps people turn their lives around, the success is sweeter still. Such is the case with Yonkers-based Leake & Watts, a nonprofit agency which helps individuals and families dealing with poverty, disabilities, and a lack of access to education and services.

Five years ago, Leake & Watts was operating with a large deficit, 80 percent of its programs undergoing corrective action from regulators, and a rapidly shrinking budget. Then a new management team came aboard and conducted a systematic review and overhaul of operations. Today, the agency is a fast-growing, focused, and efficient organization, and its remarkable administrative achievements were recognized at the end of last year when it received the New York Community Trust 2014 Gold Nonprofit Excellence Award for Overall Management Excellence.

Leake & Watts Executive Director Alan Mucatel gave us a breakdown of how the agency went from under- to over-achiever.

Before the turnaround: “Leake & Watts was impacted when New York City reduced the number of foster children it placed in residential programs. The population at our Residential Treatment Center went from 180 residents to 36 residents. We were left with unused, unfunded property with high carrying costs. When new management came aboard in 2009, we took decisive action. We created new programs for those facilities and cultivated new sources of referrals, so our residential population is up. There’s still work to do to reach full capacity, but we’re getting close.”

When the new management team joined in 2009: “We took a hard look at operating expenses and cut costs where we could. We pushed programs to operate within their annual budgets, initiated stricter monitoring of expenses and brought program managers into the budget development and monitoring process so that they have ownership and can be held accountable. We sought rate adjustments where possible, increased fundraising, refinanced and paid down debt, as well as opened new programs that are both self-sustaining and that can cover some of the agency’s fixed and administrative costs.”

Lessons learned: “We took a hard look at the mistakes that were made and revamped existing programs, incorporating evidenced-based models wherever we could. We took a look at our mission and refined it into simple concepts around success for the people we support, in keeping with newly identified core values: respect, responsibility, safety, and achievement. We engaged all staff in a process that continues today of defining success in their work and identifying barriers. We then began to measure program outcomes through performance effectiveness indicators that focus on the key accomplishments we expect through our work.”

Ongoing strategic work: “We developed a strategic plan to grow the organization and hired a chief strategy officer to keep it on track. The strategic plan doesn’t just sit on the shelf—there are semi-annual reviews and individuals are identified for moving key elements forward. We have initiated competency-based hiring tied to our core values, and do performance reviews for and hold supervision with our over 1,200 staff members.  We also strengthened our quality assurance functions, creating internal audits systems, corporate compliance protocols, created a Program Quality Committee of the Board that reviews all internal and external or third party reviews, and use these audits as an opportunity to learn and improve program and practices. Further, we bolstered our Risk Management Committee so that we look at a wide array of incidents to identify areas for improvement.

Instituting a culture of accountability and excellence: “We are transparent and communicate with staff, volunteers, and other stakeholders. We have sought, listened to and responded to feedback. We have set up systems to monitor our work. We brought in great people at a senior level. We brought in a new CFO, who helped us restructure our debt, and hired an associate director who had worked at the New York City Administration for Child Services. We hired Don Antoneechia, who had retired as superintendent of the Pleasantville School System, to be our new superintendent of schools. We have an incredible team now, and as we have been increasingly been recognized for our work, more high quality staff are drawn to our agency.”

Tips for a turnaround: “Focus in on mission and values and ensure that all are aligned with them; use strategic planning to bring stakeholders together and then monitor and report on progress toward goals; develop metrics to gauge the effectiveness of their services; ensure that board members are fully engaged and asking critical questions, and seek input from their employees and stakeholders. Opening channels for two-way communication with stakeholder groups, especially employees, is essential to changing the organization’s culture.”

The end reward: “We’re thrilled to win the prestigious [New York Community Trust 2014 Gold Nonprofit Excellence Award for Overall Management Excellence] Award. This award is an affirmation of the hard work of staff, managers, the Board, donors, and volunteers who recognize the tremendous impact Leake & Watts is having each day on the lives of our neighbors who face so many significant challenges. The award has encouraged many to take a fresh look at Leake & Watts and recognize its great strengths. The award also comes with two scholarships to attend Columbia Business School Executive Education Programs in Social Enterprise, which will help our people grow.”

 

 

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