Once the planning process infrastructure has been defined and structured through the initial preparation work described in the previous post, it’s time to move to the second of our five activities:
Meaningful planning is built on a thorough understanding of the organization.
First there is a preliminary definition of the major issues to be addressed. At this early point, they are best stated in broad and conditional terms, but they give a starting point for the exploration. They will be tested, probably reshaped, possibly changed, and certainly refined as the process evolves.
One source for the initial major issues list is a round of interviews with staff and board leaders. Whether the process is being led by an outside consultant or an internal committee chair, it is important to review assumptions, expectations, and perceptions of needs with the organization’s primary leaders. This may give you an initial consensus to test, as well as a sense of where differences may have to be navigated.
Another source is a review of relevant documents. Primary candidates would be any past plans, minutes of board meetings; committee and staff reports; the narratives in grant proposals; and for organizations that are accredited, the self study prepared for an accreditation review. This is also the time to think in terms of an integrated plan, drawing in an understanding of related planning of a different scale or nature (program, development, business, technology and facility plans, for example). A strategic plan is different from these efforts in several ways (see our blog post, website and webinar on Integrated Planning), but it needs to be fully informed by all of them.
The next, broader action is the gathering of any available relevant data that might inform the process. Externally, this could be demographic or economic trends, and benchmark data from comparable organizations, if that is available. Internally there are, ideally, some performance measures that the organizations tracks, along with other, historical, data.
As the final piece of assessment, transitioning into the engagement phase, we typically conduct a board self assessment. Self assessment puts the board in a reflective frame of mind conducive to thoughtful inquiry. It offers an opportunity to consider organizational strengths and weaknesses in the context of inclusive mutual responsibility. This helps to get trustees thinking first in terms of fiduciary role and personal commitment rather starting with an externalized sense of what others (the chief executive or staff) need to do.
Meaningful self-assessment requires the a tool appropriate to the situation and needs. BoardSource offers an excellent online service that we have used effectively with two types of clients—mature organizations with a need to fine tune, and independent schools, for which there are enlightening comparative data from comparable institutions. For other clients we have often found it better to develop our own tool to explore a more customized set of issues.
Next post: Engagement