The term “strategic planning” gets tossed around quite a bit in the nonprofit field. To help demystify 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.
As we’ve covered in previous blog posts, the pre-planning work to ensure an effective process can take weeks or months of preparation. For a strategic planning effort to have teeth, it is necessary to invite organizational leadership to engage in discussion about key questions. A strategic plan developed independently, by a handful of staff members, is unlikely to have the buy-in necessary to make it happen. External voices are needed.
Deciding the correct design for your planning effort is something strategic counsel can help you ascertain, as well as facilitate so that the organization’s CEO can participate alongside other leadership. In general, a committee is developed consisting of volunteers and staff (often as ex officio members). PMA suggests a committee that is a subset of the current board of directors, which may also invite past and prospective board members to participate. Depending on the scope of the planning, a number of topic-specific task forces can be created to engage other individuals who may have specific knowledge or skill set. In PMA’s strategic planning, task forces work on specific questions, bubbling up brainstorming to the steering committee to validate or challenge that thinking, while also working to tie it together into a cohesive plan.
Since strategic planning is an infrequent activity, many organizations are unclear of who to invite to participate, how to structure the discussion, and when to wind down discussion. Based on PMA’s in-depth planning methodology, the firm suggests the following do’s and dont’s:
DO… create separation between the full board of directors and the strategic planning steering committee. While the governing board is ultimately responsible for adopting the plan, it is often burdensome for an entire board to participate in multi-year planning, and a challenge for facilitators who are working either ahead or following standard board meetings.
DON’T… alienate those who want to participate. Other board members may prefer to serve on a task force that interests them, or want to discuss progress at board meetings.
DO… invite individuals to participate who don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with staff leadership. The best way to mend fences and build bridges is to participate together in long range planning, and fear of confrontation should be mitigated by confidence in the process.
DON’T… go after participants because they’d be “good gets,” regardless of their passion for or knowledge of the organization. No one should be involved in strategic planning for your organization who isn’t emotionally invested on some level. There may be more leeway at the task force level to secure content expertise.
DO… let staff participate on planning bodies. A plan that does not have the involvement of staff is unlikely to have the buy-in of those who are most critical to making it happen.
DON’T… let staff dominate the discussion. It can be a challenge to a well-trained and knowledgeable staff to allow volunteers, who know less about specific programs, to lead discussion. A balance of voices is needed.
DO… create a timeline and agendas of orientation and milestones. Those who may serve in a formal capacity will want to know how much time the effort is likely to take. And while PMA’s process is intentionally open-ended, the structure provides a sense of urgency to work toward consensus.
DON’T… over-structure the process. If the steering committee is having a spirited conversation, don’t be too rigid in moving off the topic just because the agenda notes that it should happen at a set time. The dialogue is why you invited these individuals to participate – encourage flexibility.
DO… document the process. Timely notes from the previous meeting should be circulated to participants, and committee members should be prompted to be thinking about key questions ahead of the next meeting. If someone arrives to the next meeting not knowing what is expected, it is unlikely to be a productive meeting.
DON’T… kill them with paper. Nothing is worse than the big, two-inch thick, onerous planning binder with 40 tabs of information. Some amount of data collection is needed, but your planning bodies will be more effective if the content is targeted.
The best strategic planning efforts are successful because of the energy and critical thinking of participants. Convening voices shouldn’t be a function of blessing already-developed content, but instead a true effort to encourage stakeholders to work together to shape future vision. The resulting buy-in is just the fuel the implementation phase will need to take your organization to the next level.