Doing Better at Doing Good

Triangle Family Services remakes itself to meet challenges

September 15, 2012 

Alice Lutz, CEO of Triangle Family Services


Throughout our communities, we have many organizations doing meaningful work. But the challenge of running a sustainable operation can sometimes overwhelm the work. As the saying goes, “no money, no mission.”

With philanthropic dollars shrinking and demands for services increasing, these are rough waters to navigate for thousands of area nonprofits.

But there are stories emerging of organizations that are making tough choices and coming out the other side stronger and ultimately more impactful. To get there, they are particularly focused on strengthening their leadership, increasing their levels of community engagement, and attracting diversified funding streams.

Triangle Family Services is one such example. Since 1937, it has been helping thousands and families and individuals who are struggling to stabilize their homes, mental well-being and lives. But five years ago, it faced serious financial and organizational stress just at a time when the economic crisis was spiking demand for services.

Recognizing the crisis, TFS’ board conducted a series of assessments that pointed out the need for new leadership at the executive and board level, as well as a plan for financial sustainability and diversification.

In 2009, the agency hired Alice Lutz as the new CEO with a mandate to shake things up. One of her first moves: adding fresh energy to the board. Through an empowered nominating committee, the board grew in size and added influential business and civic leaders. It meets monthly now instead of quarterly and every board member is assigned to a working committee.

A community advisory board also has fourteen high profile champions for TFS, such as State Senator Josh Stein and Wake Tech Foundation’s Virginia Parker. It meets quarterly and is called on throughout the year for involvement in planning and projects. Task forces have also been created to connect board members with community leaders to help support the organization’s goals. The result? More than 80 community leaders are now directly engaged with TFS – almost an eightfold increase since 2009.

Reaching out

As Lutz says, “we knew there needed to be a structural shift – including greater accountability and engagement from the board and staff. When you stir the soup differently nothing has really changed. It’s about having a fundamentally different mindset.”

For example, the TFS board no longer looks to tackle challenges internally. Instead, it looks outward and tries to leverage a much broader network. When the roof of its office sprung a leak, the board mobilized its network and ultimately saved the organization $50,000.

Beyond energizing its governing body and recruiting a network of influential advocates, TFS started to streamline the organization. Two senior-level positions were eliminated, strengthening the direct tie between Lutz and her program managers. TFS’ three core service areas were also consolidated under the program managers and then connected to board committees, which increased efficiencies and accountability up and down the line.

Additionally, outside experts volunteered with each core area team to look for productivity improvements. That led to a better pricing structure for clients, new corporate partnerships, and staffing and facilities efficiencies.

One of the Triangle’s greatest resources – smart, inexpensive college talent – has also proved to be a major resource for TFS. Last year, TFS had 21 college interns that helped save it $146,000. They are also purchasing a building and will consolidate staff and services – yielding $6,000 per month in savings and allowing more direct dollars to go toward helping families in crisis.

Sacrifices made

These cost-cutting strategies have not been easy. The staff hasn’t received a raise in eight years, and Lutz reports her own total benefits going down each year. Staff now share offices, and new systems are constantly being learned. It’s one of the reasons Lutz puts “staff nurturing” at the top of her priority list. “They are the heart and soul of what we do, especially being a human services organization, we need to take care of them while we make these tough but necessary moves.”

Last year, 6,265 families, 85 percent at or below poverty level, were assisted in a least one of TFS’ focus areas that include family safety, financial stability and mental health. Through these services, domestic violence tools are shared, people are able to find and stay in housing, and people in critical need of mental health services were able to find help when they most need it.

We rely on organizations like TFS in our community. As they and others get smarter about how to provide these critical services for our society, we should ask ourselves how we can help them get there. As Lutz puts it, “our future wellness depends on it.”

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of "Life Entrepreneurs." Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book "The Messy Quest for Meaning" and blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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