A Change of Heart

“It was terrific! I encourage others to it,” said one Board member, describing the strategic planning process his nonprofit Board just completed.

The Board achieved a better understanding of what the agency did, the parts that are really important, and how well it is managed compared to others.  For this agency, accreditation requires review of the strategic plan every four years.  While time-consuming, it was time well-spent.  Once the infrastructure to support strategic planning was in place, the time requirements shrunk considerably.

Strategic planning defines a process that is never-ending, ever-changing, and guides an organization through good times and bad.  A strategic plan is not set in stone but can be changed as external or internal factors change, though always with forethought and good cause.  As the executive director said, “If good ideas don’t meet the needs of the agency, is it time to rethink what you are doing?”

It was this original feeling — that nothing needed to change — which prompted their original response to planning.  This feeling melted away as they began to understand what a good plan could do for them.

Overcoming Resistance

The process of planning changed the Board’ and staff’s response to planning itself.  With an outside consultant, they established the following Rules to Plan By:

  1. It is critical to be clear on the organization’s mission—this defines the limits of the organization (we are about young adults not seniors, etc.).
  2. The mission must encompass all that the agency should be accomplishing, objectives that all programs must meet, and desired outcomes for clients.
  3. Enlist outside resources as needed. If it’s your first strategic plan, you may need a consultant to guide you through the whole process, as well as specialists to help you with specific areas. As time goes on, you will have the foundation in place and may need fewer outside resources. If a prior plan exists, evaluate its goals and how well they were met.
  4. Establish a Strategic Planning sub-committee of the Board to work with staff and consultants, and designate a point person on staff to oversee the process and serve as liaison with both the Board and any consultants.
  5. Start the planning process with program managers and senior staff.  Regular meetings at this level will become part of the infrastructure.

Once the plan was completed and ready for final Board approval, it was presented to the staff in detail to get their ideas about implementation.  As they moved forward, regular meetings at all staff levels discussed information and ideas that helped the plan succeed.

Benefits of regular and thorough planning

The Board and staff came to believe that strategic planning gave them valuable information about how the organization operated and clarified the programs that were core to achieving their mission.  For several members of the planning committee, the process also gave them two important insights.  Programmatically, the plan clarified:

  • What to do next
  • What not to do

At a post-strategic plan meeting of the Board and senior staff, the group defined what was helpful, what they had successfully overcome, and what the overall benefits of the process were.

What helped?

“Funders need to understand the importance of building an organization’s infrastructure and provide support for that task,” the executive director said.  Direct service cannot be provided if indirect costs, such as strategic planning, are not covered.  Staff must have time away from their daily work to meet and to train, to provide and organize the data for such things as program evaluation.

The Right Choices

Selecting the right consultant was crucial.  They looked for a consultant with experience in working with organizations of similar size or mission and one that could deal with the multi-cultural staff and program.  They also built in processes for information sharing, feedback about the plan, and potential corrective actions. This not only helped create the plan, but also provided information for their subsequent planning activities.

Benefits for the organization as a whole

Clarifying goals during the planning process allowed everyone to see progress as they moved forward.  Regular meetings for stakeholders elicited suggestions from those closest to both the programs and the problems.  Staff morale rose during the planning and the process assured staff that needs would be seen and addressed—and resources allocated where really needed.

Finally, the Board and staff reported that they felt better able to manage crises because Board and staff were well-informed about mission and resources.