PMA Consulting, LLC

Lost in Translation: Nonprofit Strategic Planning

By Patton McDowell, PMA President

Thirty minutes into a recent board retreat, I realized I was trying to facilitate through a very real language barrier. Not the kind that might occur in a cross-cultural experience or in a meeting of international diplomats, but one that often diminishes an otherwise productive planning session in many nonprofit organizations.

The “vocabulary” of strategy is deceptively familiar to nearly all participants in a board retreat, including the senior staff who are also in the room. The problem is that participants say the same words but mean different things – three different definitions of “goal” or “strategy” or “objective” are floating around the room. Small group discussions are hijacked by well-intentioned (and over-confident) board members who volunteer their  definition of planning terms based on what their company or graduate school declared as correct.

I quickly realized the issue was not advocating for one particular textbook, but simply defining the language that THIS organization will use. Board chairs and executive directors would be well-served by simply defining the language they are going to use.

If your definition of a “goal” is long-term and generally unchanging, say so. If a “strategy” is a term that has an annual horizon, say that too. Consider using the phrase “annual strategy” so that it is even more clear how you define strategy. Too often, these planning terms are used interchangeably and inconsistently by board members, and staff members can confuse matters further by using different terms in their written reports as well.

The point is not to obsess over “wordsmithing” but to maximize the all-too-valuable planning time devoted to a board or staff retreat. Here is a suggestion: create a simple glossary of planning terms your organization will use. Define goal, tactic, strategy, and any other acronyms (SWOT, etc.) used in your planning or evaluation documents. Go a step further and provide a short phrase as an example of each term. “An annual strategy is to enhance our planned giving program”; “A tactic to achieve this strategy will be the establishment of a legacy society.” This “glossary” need not be more than a half-page, and can be inserted at the beginning of the board retreat agenda, added to the orientation material for a new board member or distributed to staff in advance of their annual reviews.

Creating a common language for your board and staff will immediately amplify their ability to understand and contribute to existing material within your organization’s library, and provide a more productive dialogue in any planning setting.

Patton McDowell President