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Strategic Planning: Setting Expectations

IT strategic planningThe 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.

Deciding to embark upon a strategic planning effort is typically the most difficult step in the entire process, a point made in recently in the PMA blog post, “Getting Started”.  With volunteer and staff leadership committed to charting a course for the future, an organization is primed for an exciting period of discussion and decision-making.  But nothing ruins a strategic planning process more effectively than an ill-defined process that fails to prepare participants for the journey ahead.  When the conversation stops being about the organization but instead the process itself, you know your planning has gotten off track.

The following are just a few of the topics that are important to cover early to ensure everyone is on the same page:

  • Dedication of Time – Strategic planning takes an investment of time and financial resources. For staff, this often means putting together documentation, analyzing trends, attending additional meetings and working more closely with volunteers.  For the volunteers, this means setting aside time over and above already established board and committee meetings.  Staff and volunteers are too often surprised to find a meeting schedule and set of expectations that were not made clear to them when they agreed to participate.  When approaching participants, be very clear about what the process will entail, and for staff, explore how the additional focus will impact their day-to-day activities.  Most planning processes take at least 3-4 months, and can take 9-12 months or more.
  • Definition of Focus – Imagine two organizations; one high-performing with robust earned and contributed revenue, and the other anticipating sizable budget cuts from government sources that make up the majority of its revenue.  These two organizations are likely to enter strategic planning with very different focuses, the former opportunistic and the latter reactionary.  In both processes, however, the question of “mission” is likely to be raised, a topic that cuts to the very heart of purpose and meaning.  Is your organization prepared to redefine its purpose? The process of planning with many voices can lead to detours that challenge the status quo – the best organizations welcome this discussion if only as a means to inform strategy.  But if this or any other topic is “not on the table,” that needs to be made clear to all participants at the outset.  This is often a call made by the Board Chair and/or Chief Administrator.
  • Role of a Facilitator – PMA has encountered board members who wonder why a facilitator is needed for strategic planning, and why the Chief Administrator isn’t playing this role.  A facilitator can be an important piece to the process, allowing the Chief Administrator to participate in planning as opposed to lead it.  For the new Executive Director, it provides an opportunity to listen thoughtfully to stakeholders and be unencumbered from needing to build consensus.  For the longtime Chief Administrator, it can mean the same thing, particularly since “building buy-in” is often a central role of the lead administrator.  Strategic planning consultants can also play one of two roles – independent facilitator or informed participant.  As consultants have often participated in this process countless times, they can be useful “voices in the room,” but that is a role that should be discussed early.

As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” A strategic planning process can be game-changing for an organization, but if everyone isn’t on the same page to start, it is unlikely to get to the end successfully without a rockier road than is needed.

Pondering getting started but need help setting expectations? Contact Patton McDowell or Josh Jacobson. They would be happy to walk through it with you.

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