Martha's Vineyard Community Services announced this week that it has launched a comprehensive internal management study with the prestigious Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.

The seven-month, privately funded study is aimed at developing a strategic plan for the unique umbrella human services agency that was founded in 1961.

"The time is right for us to reflect on where we've been and where we want to go as an organization," said Community Services board president Fain Hackney in a prepared statement about the study.

"I can't convey the excitement. We're thrilled to think we can move forward and continue our tradition of providing service. I have every confidence that when we get the information, we can figure out how to put it in place," said board vice president Susan Wasserman.

The study was announced at the Community Services annual meeting Tuesday night.

"The study is a strategic plan being put together by the tops in the field of social policy," said Community Services executive director Ned Robinson-Lynch.

The study began Oct. 25 and will continue for the next seven months under the direction of Susan Curnan and a team of three management consultants from the Heller School. Selected through a competitive bidding process, the school, founded in 1959, is ranked third in the nation for advanced study in social policy and management of health and human services.

Ms. Curnan addressed the gathering of board members, staff and volunteers Tuesday. "We're just off the boat, but glad to be laboring on this beautiful Island," she said. "We're here because of the work you do. We don't do this kind of management consulting for just anybody."

The director of the Center for Youth and Communities, cochairman of the MBA program and the Ph.D. concentration in children, youth and families at Brandeis, Ms. Curnan acknowledged the Island's changing social and economic demographics, and the challenges resulting from government shifts in policy, funding and philanthropy.

Board members were sent 12 protocols on the operating methods of the Heller team, which include working with the general population as well as members of Community Services. Both will participate in 90-minute focus groups, skill and satisfaction surveys and interviews.

The results of the study will be practical, not theoretical, Ms. Curnan said. She presented the group with a broad outline of the recommendations, which include:

* Modifying services by combining or adding to those already existing;

* Easing the financial burden;

* Increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the agency and its ability to serve the community;

* Increasing the effectiveness of the board;

* Addressing internal organizational matters such as relationships between employees and management, communication, compensation and professional development.

"The Heller School is knowledge advancing social justice to close the gap between what we know and what we do on a practical level," Ms. Curnan said. "Our mission is to make knowledge productive."

The cost of the study is tagged at about $60,000. Funding will come from Community Services and Ryna and Melvin Cohen, Marion and Charles Harff, Ted Johnson, Rene and Dan Kaplan, Genevieve and Justin Wyner, Mary Ann and Stanley Snider, and Diana and Roy Vagelos.

The announcement about the management study comes after a difficult year for Community Services, which was torn asunder by a protracted movement among mental health workers to form a union.

Ms. Wasserman said this week that Community Services is now perfectly poised to move ahead.

"One of the things the people from the Heller School told us was that nonprofits have a life expectancy of 40 years," she said, adding: "It puts it all into perspective - nonprofits go through cycles. We're at a place where a lot of nonprofits run into difficulties. Now that the union contract has been signed, it's time to do some strategic planning."

About 125 people attended the annual meeting at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury, including board members, staff and volunteers. The event included administrative reports and was followed by a dinner with toasts and tributes.

Outgoing board president Terry Burke reviewed the turbulent year, which also had its highlights, including the purchase of the Island Community Resources residential home and a positive review of the Head Start program.

Treasurer Norman Freed reported total operating revenue was $3.8 million, down 2.1 per cent from last year while total operating expenses were $4.9 million, up 1.7 per cent.

The social service organization ended the year with an operating loss of $1.1 million, but the red ink was offset by $946,348 in gift money, including $578,294 from this year's Possible Dreams Auction.

There were accolades for Ms. Burke, who was the surprised recipient of the Volunteer of the Year Award. Mrs. Wasserman, Jaime Harris and Michael McCarthy gave tributes.

There was time to celebrate. Storyteller Susan Klein regaled the assembly with a poignant story about her childhood on Wing Road. The evening was punctuated by applause and expressions of appreciation.

Plaques were awarded, including one to Linda McCarthy for 20 years of service. Olga Hirshhorn, unable to attend, captured the Unsung Hero award for her work with the Thrift Shop's Chicken Alley Art Show. Amy Eisenlohr and Kerry Scott received the Above and Beyond Award for their work with the Possible Dreams Auction.