Kara Penn, MBA, MPP

Consulting & Facilitation: Ideas to Implementation

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Kara Penn, MBA, MPP is Principal Consultant for Mission Spark and co-author of the book Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner (HBR Press, 2014). Kara strives to take the best and most practical ideas, lessons and tools from policy, management, community development, social movements, and systems thinking to help strengthen and innovate the social sector.  Kara has 15+ years of experience as a leader, manager, facilitator, consultant and coach in Colorado and throughout the United States.

She’s served in senior leadership positions in a variety of organizations, including as founder, director, program manager, chair and board member.  Kara cares deeply about social, cultural and environmental issues and has experience in a wide range of areas including health, human services, environmental justice, community development, youth development, international development, affordable housing and the arts. Kara also understands the unique challenges and opportunities facing nonprofit organizations, and sees the social sector as an innovative, effective and essential part of our societal fabric.

Kara’s approach is collaborative, inclusive and direct. She focuses on exceeding the expectations of her clients and getting lasting results. She sees the client/consultant relationship in a long-term context and cares about the results the organization achieves long after the contract ends. Kara is a professionally trained facilitator, and recently completed over 100 hours of training through the Coach’s Training Institute in the Co-Active coaching model. She brings the values and techniques of professional coaching to individuals exploring the edge of their abilities, striving for positive social impact, and stretching their leadership muscle, as well as to organizational teams looking to work together in more authentic, high impact, and fulfilling ways.


Key Services

Kara typically focuses her work in the following areas:

  • Strategy development, strategic planning and early implementation of strategy
  • Leadership coaching for individuals and teams
  • Authentic and thorough stakeholder engagement
  • Complex facilitation of collaborative groups
  • Building adaptive capacity and driving innovation in program and service design
  • Business planning & earned revenue strategies
  • Program assessment, innovation & implementation
  • Impact assessment and evaluation
  • Mediation & facilitated dialogue
  • Organizational assessment, structure development,  and systems analysis

Professional Experience

Kara started as grassroots community change agent– developing scalable community-based programs and services in conjunction with a wide-variety of community partners to address environmental health issues in East St. Louis. She’s worked the night shift as a milieu counselor in a juvenile detention facility and worked through out South-East Asia in partnership with low-income artists and craftsmen to develop effective business practices for producing their wares for distribution and sale.

Since these early formative experiences she’s designed and led departments, programs, collaboratives, community initiatives and projects for more than 15 organizations including St. Mary’s Hospital in East St. Louis, IL, Jonathan Rose Companies in New York, NY, and MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence in Cambridge, MA. She’s consulted to approximately 50 non-profits, NGOs, government entities and social enterprises on core management and leadership areas, including board development, program management, fund development, evaluation and assessment and strategic planning. She has also led several organizations through mediation processes and organizational transitions as they resolve inner conflict and move to the next level of performance.  Kara has facilitated several large scale community collaborative efforts, including the award-winning Metro East Lead Collaborative in East St. Louis, subject of an US EPA documentary focusing on effective collaborative efforts.

As a senior consultant and trainer for the Community Resource Center, Kara authored “Start Up for Success: Planning, Founding and Initiating a New 501(c)3”, a comprehensive and practical workbook for non profit start-up and early implementation. She also developed and delivered trainings in program evaluation, strategic planning, and early implementation for new nonprofit organizations. Kara also develops tools and thought leadership pieces on organizational learning and practical management in conjunction with faculty member Anjali Sastry at MIT.

Educational Background

Kara graduated from The Colorado College, where she was a Boettcher Scholar. She completed her MPP, with honors, at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and her MBA at MIT Sloan School of Management. While at MIT Sloan, Kara received the Seley award, the highest honor given to a graduating student. Kara has been the recipient of several national fellowships, including the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for independent study abroad and to promote world citizenship, the Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs to develop principled public leaders, and the Forte Fellowship to promote women leaders in business.


What Kara’s Clients Have To Say

Kara’s knowledge of organizational structure and plan implementation is excellent… We’ve worked with several consultants in the past and Kara was the most efficient in developing tools that are realistic. This allowed us to move forward vs. watching our strategic planning efforts fall flat.
Project Manager Denver-Area Housing Organization
Thank you again for your great work on our program evaluation process.  We’ll be leaps and bounds ahead of where we were in this area thanks to your expertise!
Executive Director Denver-area human services organization
Kara identified problem areas and helped us to use the strategic planning process as a tool to identify gaps and make goals to address them. Two examples were: 1. Engaging key stakeholders both internal and external that may or may not have understood the mission or been favorable of the organization. 2. Identifying ways to handle Board members who were not communicating and behaving in a constructive manner… Finally, Kara helped take a monumental project off the staff’s plates and gave them small reasonable goals.
Executive Director Denver-area Youth Development Organization

Selected Clients and Projects*


Colorado Tourism (design and implementation of peer mentor program)

The Boettcher Foundation (program development and alumni networks)

CDHS Domestic Violence Program (technical assistance provider for grantees)

MIT Center for Collective Intelligence  (project management)

World of Good Development Organization  (tool implementation)

Rose Community Foundation (stakeholder engagement of educators, facilitation, evaluation and reporting engaging Denver Public Schools and Denver Classroom Teachers Association)

University of Colorado School of Medicine (design and execution of Summit)

The Summit Foundation (outcomes measurement design)

St. Louis Children’s Hospital  (implementation strategy for major initiative)

The Visiting Nurse Association of Colorado (situational analysis and strategic plan)

Social Venture Partners Boulder County (strategic plan and stakeholder engagement)

Colorado Succeeds (facilitation of task force and reporting)

Denver Open Media Foundation (budget development, strategic plan implementation)

Bennie E. Goodwin After School Academic Program (program evaluation and implementation)

The Conflict Center  (strategic plan development)

Groundwork Denver (program evaluation)

Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence (facilitation, custom training)


Beyond the Bio

Things I love about consulting: I am inspired by the passion, drive and vision of social change leaders. I also love the way consulting enables lessons to be learned and shared across organizations and sectors.

Rural and urban: I am a fourth generation Coloradan who loves all parts of the state. I have also consulted throughout other parts of the United States, mainly on the East Coast and Midwest. I have completed projects in big cities and rural communities, including small villages in Thailand and Vietnam.

Favorite pursuit(s): I have many! I enjoy traveling, painting in watercolor and acrylics, sports (playing and watching) and writing. I especially love spending time with my family. My young daughters are a constant source of joy.

Favorite places: Any place where I am able to work uninterrupted for a little while (see the part about having a young children above)


*Some listed consulting projects were completed in through other organizations. Organizations include MIT Sloan School of Management, Coro Leadership Center – St. Louis and the Community Resource Center.