What a waste to spend all that time on strategic planning to have it sit on the shelf. But careful design to appropriately engage your board members can raise their commitment to the plan’s direction.
Before getting to all the opportunities to engage your board, let’s step back and look at the overall process.
Six essential elements for successful strategic planning
There are many ways to develop your nonprofit’s strategic plan. Your plan might be:
recommended to the board by a strategic planning committee of board and staff (and maybe some outsiders) that meet over an extended period.
largely developed by your staff and presented to the board as a recommendation.
created in one sitting by the board and senior staff.
I’m sure you can add other processes you’ve experienced.
While it’s hard to say there is any right way to do strategic planning, here are a few elements of any process that I’ve learned are essential to its success:
• Personal investment
Back to those plans that sit on the shelf. A big reason for this is the lack of personal investment in the plan. You’ll need to ensure your plan is supported by the leadership team that has to champion it and the people who have to carry it out.
• Data Collection
It’s nearly impossible to be strategic in the absence of data. For example, what is the actual scale of the community need you are trying to address? What is the impact that you are having now in comparison to that need? How are changes in demographics influencing your impact? What do stakeholders think about your organization, your people and your issues? Who else is doing effective work in this area? What is working and what isn’t?
An essential element of strategic thinking is making predictions about the future and then planning for those realities. What might your world look like 10 months, two years, ten years from now? What assumptions do you take for granted that if they were no long true you would see a dramatic impact on your ability to achieve your mission?
• Stakeholder support
Beyond your lunchroom or board room, your plan’s success also depends on getting your constituents, your funders and donors, and your partners to support the direction you are heading.
Think of this as the ability to do the job well. Your strategic planning needs to result in good decisions.
• A planning process that adds value
Because of all the time devoted to planning, the process works best when your data gathering, community contacts and deliberation create new knowledge, strengthen relationships and build alignment, even before you get to the completion of the plan.
Board engagement in the planning process, then, should help to advance these essential elements.
Here are places and ways that the board and directors can be engaged in strategic planning.
From the very start
Personal investment starts when your board endorses and sees value in developing a strategic plan. Your full board can and should endorse the process that will be used to develop the plan, regardless if it’s staff led, recommended by a planning committee, outside counsel, or some other way. At the start, your board can help frame the strategic questions it wants answered.
In the data gathering and future predictions stages
While your staff may be the most knowledgeable about your industry, your directors also have knowledge or access to knowledge about your community, about the economy, the political landscape or more. Whether you are developing your initial assessment at the staff level or in a strategic planning team, it is wise to ensure that knowledge is shared with your key decision-makers and other stakeholders (staff too).
When willing, I like to send directors out with a set of strategic questions to interview key stakeholders or other critical informants. I find this process to be very valuable in building personal investment in the plan, in developing stakeholder support, and in creating other value for your organization such as deepening essential relationships and increasing director knowledge.
It’s hard to be terribly strategic if you don’t have a good sense of the size and shape of your ultimate goals. Once you have data and predictions in hand, it helps to build ownership by creating a shared story or vision of the community impact you wish to have.
(A caution though about timing of this conversation… don’t let your “big hairy audacious vision” be impaired by financial reality right at the beginning. The reality check will come into play when you develop goals and strategies that both recognize financial limitations but also seek to work around them.)
In middle and end stages of planning
As you move forward, consider how much feedback and involvement from your directors it will take to build strong agreement about your strategic direction. The greater support you have, the more personal investment you will build. If you use a planning committee, it helps to have a variety of perspectives deliberating together.
You may wish to take recommendations back to the board in stages – perhaps buying them into the theory of change and strategies in an interim phase. Or maybe the plan doesn’t really hold together well until you have married your impact and strategies with financial projections and capacity investments.
You may also wish to take your plan to your key stakeholders and community supporters in stages as well – whether through one-on-one meetings or in larger gatherings. This is another place where directors not only can be involved, but their presence helps to build community support, more informed decision-making and higher personal investment in the plan.
Need I say more here? No matter the level of involvement, an organization’s strategic plan is ultimately “owned” by the board of directors.
Disseminating and championing
Hopefully you’ve already built a lot of stakeholder support as you’ve moved through the planning process. Regardless, directors should be champions of the plan moving forward.
Monitoring and adjusting plan implementation
More and more boards are aligning their meeting content and even their committees or working groups to ensure a living strategic plan. What progress are you making? Where are the stumbling blocks? Are core assumptions still accurate? If not, how must the strategy be adjusted?
Your ultimate goal is to embed the disciplines of strategic thinking and planning deeply into your board and organizational culture. Strategic thinking should be something you do every day, not something you only consider every few years.
Whatever approach you use to create your strategic plan, your board and directors need to be sufficiently involved to ensure their understanding, ownership and ability to champion a plan that increases your impact on your community.