Strategic Planning: Discovery + Defining the Issues


The term “strategic planning” gets tossed around quite a bit in the nonprofit sector.  To help clarify the process, our consultants will weigh in as a part of an on-going series on subjects related to strategic planning in the nonprofit sector – process, trends, fresh perspectives and tales from the field.

discoveryprocessOnce an organization has set expectations for how its own strategic planning effort will engage participants (see Setting Expectations), the next critical stage is engaging in a discovery process to aid in defining the issues the process will explore.  A big mistake made by many organizations is a rush into discussion, forgetting that those around the table are not working from the same understanding.

A good discovery process (particularly one led by an outside facilitator) can ensure that everyone starts from the beginning with a working understanding of the issues.  Patton McDowell & Associates (PMA) says the key steps include:

  • Gather and Review Materials – The “data dump” is a great first step, and it helps all involved develop an understanding of where the organization has been.  It was during this stage that the CEO of a client working with PMA saw all of the organization’s marketing materials gathered on a table and recognized that there was no consistent look and feel to their outreach.  The simple act of information gathering can often yield new discoveries.
  • Gain Buy-In – Most CEOs and Board Chairs can define the significant issues facing an organization from the initial meeting.  Those individuals closest to an organization are likely to already know the barriers to progress or the most pressing opportunities.  But a strategic planning process should seek to bring those with less understanding to the table as well, and a broad stakeholder interview process is a defining activity of discovery.  The act of “co-creation” through interviews is powerful and can increase buy-in from all stakeholders in the outcomes of the process and the organization’s future success.
  • Conduct Comparative Research – As PMA described in a previous installment, benchmarking doesn’t have to be just metrics and “keeping up with the Joneses.”  PMA’s comparative research typically spends more time studying process and creative solutions of peers locally, regionally and nationally, as well as organizations with disparate missions but similar characteristics.
  • Analyze and Define the Issues – With material reviewed, interviews conducted and comparative/outcome research concluded, the final step of discovery is analyzing the findings and creating structure to the planning effort.  In truth, most organizations can’t tackle everything that may be identified in discovery. Also, some issues may be prioritized or need to take place first before others can be addressed.  PMA typically suggests 4-7 broad topics be defined, which will often line up with task forces that will undertake that planning.  Typical topics include: programming, operations, financial management, fund development, marketing & awareness, internal relations, staffing, board development, partner development, volunteer management and outcome measurement.  While these topics may be of singular focus, mission and vision are almost always on the table as well, to be addressed by the core planning group (the board or a strategic planning subcommittee).

Need help making sense of a complicated discovery process? Patton McDowell and Josh Jacobson are experts at finding the best path forward.

Case Study: Carolina Actors Studio Theatre

By the time the staff and volunteer leadership of Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST) began developing a strategic plan in the early part of 2012, the theatre had already accomplished a major undertaking.  As the recipient of a two-year Cultural Innovation Grant from Charlotte’s Arts & Science Council (ASC) in 2010, CAST relocated to a larger facility in the NoDa Neighborhood of Charlotte.  The move was a seismic shift for the theatre, with an increase in its profile and ongoing operating costs more than double those at the theatre’s old venue.

As a part of its Cultural Innovation Grant, CAST was provided coaching support from PMA.  The firm worked with CAST leadership on strategies and tactics related to the relocation, and with that accomplished successfully in 2011, suggested a modified strategic planning process to answer the question on everyone’s minds – “So, now what?”

CAST’s strategic planning process was unique. Having accomplished so much in such a short period of time, the staff and volunteer leadership gravitated toward operational topics such as how the new venue and operating budget would require new/modified processes and procedures.  With a goal of “operational excellence,” planning participants tackled the tactical components of financial management, staffing, marketing and fund development topics with the same energy as more strategic topics.

In the end, CAST’s strategic plan functions as a kind of business plan, with best practices and a timetable for implementation delineated.  By defining the issues related to operations early, CAST’s leadership was able to use the process to create a plan that fit their near-term needs with an eye toward long-term operational excellence.

*Photo courtesy of Cambridge Professionals.

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Categories: Nonprofit, Strategic Planning

Author:pattonmcdowell

Patton McDowell & Associates is a consulting firm dedicated to helping nonprofits and charitable foundations achieve their goals. We maximize an organization’s resources and help it achieve strategic efficiency.

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