Atlas Assistance Dogs is a nonprofit, co-founded by daughter-father team Jennifer Kolar and Mike Kolar. The organization helps people with disabilities train their own service dogs. Few people are aware of the long wait times (measured in years) and high costs ($30,000 or more) that stand as barriers preventing people with disabilities from receiving the dog they need. Atlas seeks to fill a clear need in the market for affordable, ethical aid to the disability community.
In 2021, Atlas reached a crossroads. Although their established programs were successful, there was a challenge. Jen (Co-founder and Board Chair) says, “We weren’t accomplishing some of our goals and a number of people weren’t meeting their deliverables.” She adds that there was increasing board frustration with the level of involvement and responsiveness of some of the team. It was apparent to Jen that “we needed to create a clear set of expectations.”
Later that year, Atlas got an invaluable opportunity. Their organization was chosen to be a part of the SCC Paying It Forward program, where coaches donate their skills and expertise to non-profits that can’t otherwise afford coaching/consulting.
Atlas was paired with Kimberly Gonsalves and Aaron Wheeler who are certified SCC coaches, trainers/facilitators, and OD consultants. “They came in and hit the ground running,” Jen states.
Kimberly and Aaron conducted an organizational health assessment to determine Atlas’ key strengths and perceived areas of needed development.
“One very valuable deliverable from the first phase of the engagement,” Jen states, “was helping us identify the most critical areas that needed to be prioritized, and then helping us really focus on the most core of those.”
Atlas’s three core goals became:
- Improving accountability.
- Ensuring clear goals and roles for board members.
- Developing a board retention, development and succession plan.
Working with the two SCC consultants, Atlas’s board implemented a phased approach. The first was to define clear expectations of what it meant to be a successful board member (using the Star Profile methodology) and how to run more effective meetings (article here).
This process didn’t come without its challenges. There was some resistance to the new direction and culture Atlas was attempting to cultivate. “We saw some shakeup in the board as a result of some of the initial meetings where we were talking about accountability and expectations,” Jen states. “Shifting a culture isn’t easy but we saw it as necessary to achieve the goal ‘to grow as a sustainable organization that operates effectively long term.’”
As meetings progressed, Atlas board members became more and more comfortable with the process and with their consultants. “I think in being external consultants,” Jen states. “Kimberly and Aaron were able to push some points about commitment and communication that are harder for us to bring up and push internally.”
Later in the engagement, Jen brought Kimberly and Aaron in to help plan a board retreat where Atlas’ strategic plan would be addressed and turned into an action plan.
“A huge value-add came,” Jen observes, “when our consultants worked alongside us as we went through our strategic plan step by step, identifying owners, and identifying priority date ranges for each item.
“Later they came back to look at where we needed to load balance and identify immediate deliverables to focus on over the next 90 days.”
According to Jen, being a part of the SCC Paying It Forward program and working with the consultants “has led us to being a team that is functioning and delivering quite well together. Our team knows what is expected and has bought into making the required commitment.”
According to Kimberly and Aaron, the benefits of this engagement have worked in both directions. Aaron states, “Seeing the way this organization is so driven to serve their clients to ensure they have better lives was a great reminder of why I became a coach: to be of service and truly help people better themselves and their work environments. Moreover, working with Jen and the Atlas team revealed ways I can become more aware and inclusive of the needs of people with disabilities, from language to practice.”
Kimberly adds, “Being a volunteer coach with the Paying It Forward Program has given me the opportunity to continue developing my skills, grow my network, and meet amazing nonprofits serving their communities. I would do this again 1,000 times over!”