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By Michael Kleiner
The best strategic planning meeting Scott Wheeler ever had was when he needed a plan for his new consulting practice. He headed to a house in the woods of New Hampshire for a weeklong retreat in February 2003.
“It was a great planning meeting because everybody agreed with me,” laughed the Managing Director of West Chester-based Strategy Arts. “It was 20 below zero and I was on an island alone. Nobody was there and I could hear the lake creaking and popping. I realized I was really far away. There wasn’t much to do but think.”
“I wanted to look at the hard and soft side of planning which meant figuring out how to focus on analytics, process and people. For a while, I was stuck on the idea of combining strategy and craft, then, settled on combining strategy and art. In art, you have to be creative, but there is more science behind art than craft. The name was settled when I found the domain name strategyarts.com was available.”
One of the first job assignments for the new business was a pro bono case for a fledgling organization, the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, in 2005. Scott recalled “I was coming from the world of big business. SBN’s planning retreat was at the Omega Institute and we couldn’t wear shoes inside the building we were assigned to. There I was in my socks facilitating a planning meeting. That’s where I met Judy Wicks. Her insight and the friends I made then started us down the path to the work we’ve done with SBN and other non-profits.”
Elizabeth Guman was also there as a member of SBN’s board. “I was looking for colleagues that shared my values around business being a force for good,” she said. “That’s what SBN was about. I was really excited about being on the ground floor to get the organization started.”
After working as an independent consultant for over 15 years, Elizabeth started work with Strategy Arts as a sub-contractor in 2005. She become a partner and Director of Non-Profit Services in 2012. This year she was the project lead as Strategy Arts facilitated SBN’s strategic plan.
“The environment has changed significantly since the first time Strategy Arts led SBN’s planning effort. Talk about being triple-bottom line is no longer ‘fringe’ like it was in 2005. SBN has moved from a start-up to a young, vibrant organization. The board has moved from an operational board to a governance board with a strong staff in place.”
“SBN is a member-driven organization so having members involved was critical, as well as really understanding other external stakeholders, partners and potential partners in the community,” said Elizabeth. “We put a lot of effort in making sure they were involved.”
Strategy Arts has also grown, with 10 team members. Clients include corporate, government and non-profit sectors. They offer services in five areas: strategic planning, meeting planning and facilitation, program evaluation, collective impact and organizational change work.
“Every client is different,” said Elizabeth. “When we do cross sector work, we are familiar with all three sectors, so we can apply things that we learn in one sector to another. It helps people move beyond assumptions they have about themselves and others. In all of our work we bring the human and analytic sides of consulting together. First, throughout projects, we work hard on the human side: getting people together, working through ideas and building alignment around the goals. Second, we do the research to make sure clients have the data and information they need to make informed decisions.”
Collective impact projects allow Strategy Arts to play a meaningful role in effecting social change. “Collective impact brings multiple players together to work on complex social issues. We’re helping those groups figure out how to work together and make progress against the issues.”
The Chester County Department of Community Development created an initiative, Decades to Doorways, to end homelessnessness in Chester County by 2022. Strategy Arts evaluated the effectiveness of the collective and set up a two-year operational plan. They are also working with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health on a collective impact project to reduce infant mortality.
Each year, Strategy Arts selects a few organizations and conducts pro bono projects. All core team members serve on non-profit boards. A percentage of their profits are donated to non-profit organizations.
Elizabeth graduated from William & Mary with a degree in business. She worked in software training, adult learning, organizational development and received a Master’s in Instructional Design from Penn State Great Valley.
“I was inspired by my dad, who worked at First National Bank of West Chester for 35 years,” she said. “I was always impressed that he was very connected to the community. I would meet people that he gave business loans to start their business. We would go to their store and buy a refrigerator. I watched the interconnection of business, relationships, how people could make a living and do good work together and how they benefitted the community. I wanted to be able to incorporate those values in my work.”
Scott grew up in Leominster, MA, “the pioneer plastics city.” “We lived near the Nashua River,” said Scott. “It was the waste dump for the paper mills in the town next to us. When we drove over the Nashua River, we held our noses because it smelled so bad. As children we tried to guess which color it was because it would be different depending on the color of paper they were making.”
Scott worked in a plastics factory as a teen and even had to help move chemical drums to hide them from inspections.
Growing up in Leominster had a powerful impact on Scott and showed him what industry can do when they’re unchecked or uninformed. “That started me down the path of sustainability. I learned how not to do things.”
He moved on to earn degrees in environmental engineering and forestry from SUNY-Environmental Science and Forestry. He worked briefly in defense contracting, then spent 18 years working in different divisions of Mars, Inc. before starting Strategy Arts.