If strategic planning in nonprofits is to a great extent the development of consensus around mission (our definition), then engagement is the heart of the process. This is the subject of one of our webinars, Cultivating Stakeholders, and relates closely to two of our e-letters, #1: Why Planning is More Critical in Challenging Times and #2: The Secret Life of Surveys.
The first group that needs to be engaged is the governing board. Success in planning and its implementation is dependent on the board feeling that they own the process. Following the meetings and interviews of the preparation and assessment phases, a board meeting or preferably a retreat should be the first step of the engagement process. The retreat agenda typically offers discussion of the work done to date and solicits thoughts about mission, vision, values, critical issues, opportunities, threats, strengths and weaknesses. Depending on the specifics of the situation, the session can go only as far as open-ended brainstorming, or it might go a way toward defining the outlines of the plan.
Effective conduct of a retreat typically requires an outside facilitator, especially when there are any contentious issues or tensions among any of the parties. Organizations that conduct their planning on their own often bring in an experienced, neutral party for the retreat.
Once the board has had the opportunity to set a direction, other constituencies can be consulted. This can be done through open meetings, small discussion groups, and/or surveys.
Many nonprofits resist consulting with their stakeholders about mission, core values, or even program content because they think they might be opening fundamental and nonnegotiable issues to debate. When done well, however, there are only positives in this communication. Talking about mission and values does not need to suggest that they might be changed by majority vote; its does however, acknowledge the importance of understanding and discussing differences of perspective. Respectful listening and inclusiveness offer learning opportunities of one sort or another for all parties.
Respectful listening, of course, includes the requirement to respond. We recommend frequent communication throughout a planning process about what has been heard, what has been learned, and what might be done differently. If stakeholders feel that their comments and concerns are being heard and considered, they are very flexible about how close any resulting action needs to be to their initial positions. Ongoing communication inspires confidence and trust, and strengthens the organization.