Cohort Based Learning: An Investment in Local YWCA Financial Leadership

Case Study

  • 14 months
  • 70 associations
  • 30 states

Financial Leadership Model


How do you build capacity for a large group of nonprofit leaders in an affordable, yet comprehensive way?

What if these leaders are located in different geographic regions across the country with annual budgets ranging from $100,000 to $90 million?  In 2015 and 2016, we set out to do exactly that.  Spectrum spent 14 months in partnership with the YWCA USA to build financial leadership capacity in over 70 YWCA associations, working with more than 100 nonprofit professionals in a collaborative, peer learning setting. By enabling a large group of individuals to learn together both online and in-person, not only did the program build financial leadership, but it built a peer network to answer future questions, share ideas and together work toward accomplishing the YWCA’s mission of eliminating racism and empowering women.

A cohort based learning model

The Wallace Foundation found in a recent study that it is possible, even with limited time and resources, to enhance the capacity of nonprofits to achieve greater long term sustainability and programmatic quality with a well-designed, multi-component cohort based program (1).  In late 2014, based upon the findings of this research and their own internal data, the YWCA USA was ready to put this theory into practice and put out a call to address their own networks’ issues of leadership and economic vitality.  Spectrum answered that call.

Based in theory but developed with an understanding of the day-to-day pressures and realities that nonprofit executives and board members face, Spectrum Nonprofit Services worked closely with YWCA USA leadership to develop and implement a customized hybrid in-person and online cohort learning series.  In a two-part program, participants from across the country would engage with one another and within their leadership teams around concepts in financial leadership and Spectrum’s 2014 field guide, The Sustainability Mindset.


Like a lot of nonprofits, YWCA association directors come from working in the field and with programs, making them experts in serving their constituents and in managing staff, yet they may not be adequately prepared to be financial leaders.  These challenges appear when leaders do not understand the true costs of delivering their programs or when they struggle to address the complexities of cost allocation associated with public contracts.  Spectrum’s curriculum addressed these challenges and empowered leaders by using a series of 8 webinars over the course of 9 months to develop a foundational understanding of nonprofit finance and financial leadership.  Topics included:

  • Demystifying Expenses,
  • Facilities and Finances,
  • Budgets and Dashboards,
  • Revenue Strategy, and more.

The curriculum provided practical takeaways in the form of homework and templates for participants to implement immediately to strengthen their associations.  In many cases, Directors and program staff from the same association would participate together, reinforcing group learning not only on the national level but within leadership teams as well.  Furthermore, discussions amongst associations were encouraged on a private social network where participants shared their experiences, successes and challenges.


In Phase II we explored the deep interconnection between an organization’s ability to be financially viable and create impact in its community.  Spectrum Nonprofit Services’ tool for showcasing this integration is the matrix map, a visual representation of an organization’s business model.  Together with leaders at YWCA USA, Spectrum developed the Phase II curriculum to take a more concentrated group of association directors beyond financial leadership and strengthen each association’s capacity for pursuing sustainability.

Through an application process, program leaders identified 18 associations who were ready to take the next steps.  Three interactive webinars guided participants in small teams through the process of assessing programmatic mission impact, determining profitability, and building their own matrix maps.  When challenges were encountered, the entire Spectrum team worked together to offer one-on-one coaching to each participant throughout the program. An in-person capstone in early 2016 in Palm Springs, California, allowed participants to better understand and share their business models.  From there specific strategies were explored to engage the board in discussions and decide on next steps to strengthen their business models.  Associations also shared their plans with each other, learning from peers and brainstorming new ideas of how to accomplish their mission in a financially viable manner.

“As a result of the matrix map and the high profitability and mission impact of our childcare services, the board decided to fundraise and transform vacant space into a new childcare center! I don’t know if this would have been decided had it not been for the matrix map.” -Phase II Participant

Financial leadership is more than just financial management; it is about guiding an organization grounded in the realities of today’s financial health with an orientation towards long-term sustainability.  This process takes time, resources, and community support.  Following the success of our work with the YWCA, we are emboldened to continue offering the cohort based learning model as an approach to the all-too-common challenge of capacity building for financial leadership.  Spectrum started two similar programs with nonprofit associations in New Hampshire and in North Dakota in late 2016 and we hope to continue to find ways to offer similar programs throughout 2017 and beyond.