The Cambodian Family has been working with Executive Coaches of Orange County since April 2004. The agency’s Executive Director, Rifka Hirsch, considers their coach, John Benner, a friend, counselor and mentor, and an influential facilitator of the agency’s current strategic planning process.

Twenty-four years ago, Rifka Hirsch was working on her Masters degree in Fine Arts and supporting herself by teaching classes in English as a second language to refugees in Santa Ana. She met a small group of Cambodian refugees who had recently formed a nonprofit organization and were helping Cambodian families adjust to living in the United States. The group really needed full time staff to coordinate their efforts and help meet the community’s growing needs. They asked Rifka if she would help them apply for a grant.  After they were successful in obtaining the grant, they hired Rifka to direct the new program.

For years, Rifka and her team continued to apply for a wide variety of grants. Their exceptional grant writing skills helped grow The Cambodian Family into an organization with nine program managers that was able to serve the needs of refugees and immigrants living in their area, regardless of their country of origin.

The new millennium, however, was not kind to The Cambodian Family. First, the stock market decline hurt the foundations that were supporting them, resulting in significant cutbacks in the size of their grants. Then 9/11 resulted in less federal government funding for social service programs. Rifka tried to lead her organization out of the difficulty, but she felt like they were stuck.

In 2004, Shelley Hoss, President of the Orange County Community Foundation, invited some Executive Directors to attend a workshop presented by the Executive Coaches of Orange County on capacity building strategies. Rifka and three of her managers attended, and the idea of a ‘breakthrough capacity building goal’ resonated with their need to try different paths to funding.

One of our coaches, John Benner, turned out to be a great match for The Cambodian Family’s needs. Rifka liked the way John listened, and liked his sensitivity and compassion. Prior to joining the Executive Coaches of Orange County, John had been a senior vice-president of Lucky Stores, had served on several nonprofit boards, and was most recently the chairman of the board for the Food Industry Crusade Against Hunger. He had also provided strategic planning consulting services internationally in Russia and Poland.

John met with Rifka and her program managers as a team and lead them through a strategic planning process. As Rifka puts it, “John was easy to work with. He listened well, asked significant questions, and got us thinking. Sometimes he shared his perspective and suggestions, but he never pushed them on us. After a few months, we’d created a strategic plan on paper, but for a while nothing happened.

It became clear that half of us wanted immediate action, and the other half wanted to think more deeply about the issues and implications,” says Rifka. “John proposed that he and I meet one-on-one to help consider how to proceed. He also met individually with my management team to interview them and get a better sense of how each saw their roles in our future. Our meetings were very helpful to me. John would share his approach to dealing with situations similar to mine, but let me decide what was best for us. John was truly a coach and mentor.

From John’s perspective, things were moving more slowly than he was comfortable with, but he appreciated the agency. He was attracted by the feeling that The Cambodian Family really was a family, with everyone’s children and loving relationships permeating the atmosphere every time he visited. He wanted to help them change.

About a year into the process, a ‘breakthrough’ idea started bubbling up from the staff. “We decided to have a major event to celebrate The Cambodian Family’s twenty-fifth anniversary,” Rifka remembers. “It was totally different than anything we had ever tried to do before, and it was a great success.

John thought the event was a good idea. “It gave us the confidence that we might be able to develop and implement a strategic plan,” Rikfa says. “Several months later, we put our new ability to the test. We organized an event to celebrate the Cambodian New Year. It, too, was a great success!

Today, things at The Cambodian Family are headed in a new direction. “We are in the process of planning an agency-wide transformation that will give birth to a new Cambodian Family, in a new location where we can offer child care and other programs to meet the changing needs of our community, with new ways of funding our organization, and with an evolved leadership to carry us into the future,” says Rifka. “This transformation plan goes way beyond our original desire for a strategic plan.

John is now leading us through this transformation planning process. We are applying for grants to help us fund the process. We will produce a business plan that will redefine The Cambodian Family and our work in the community. None of this would have happened if John had not sat with us through the process, been patient with us until we could find a breakthrough idea that we were ready to act on, and then lead us toward defining a much bigger vision than we ever could have imagined prior to starting our journey. We needed a credible outsider like John to keep encouraging us. He listened, and was a mirror so that we could see for ourselves what we have and have not done. He cared. He chose to be there for us. He is our mentor.