Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Structure of Planning: Process, part 3


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.

For more on the importance and benefits of involving all stakeholders, see the e-letters Why Plan? and The Secret Life of Surveys.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Structure of Planning: Process, part 2

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

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Structure of Planning: Process, part 1

There are many reasons to plan and many effective ways to go about the planning process. There are also some common ways that planning goes wrong. This post is the first in a series about how a well-conceived structure can tilt the odds toward success.

In our work we divide a planning process into five activities: preparation, assessment, engagement, plan development, and implementation. They are sequential, with some overlap (e.g. once it starts, engagement keeps going for the rest of the process). We have found this framework to be an effective starting point for thinking about the requirements of any planning process. It is a deceptively simple organizing principle. Thought of in the negative, most planning goes wrong through failure to address adequately one or more of these activities.


Preparation begins with the design of a process that is attuned to the nature, needs, situation, culture, and experience of an organization. A well-designed process will engage issues and stakeholders in a way that will lead to a relevant, meaningful and strategic plan. A formulaic process that may have worked beautifully for one organization may well fail miserably to meet the needs of another.

It is important to develop a clear work plan and timeline. If the organization is using a consultant these issues will likely have been included in an initial agreement, but conditions evolve, and they should be discussed and adjusted throughout the planning process. If the process is being run internally, an explicit work plan and timeline are, if anything, more essential. One of the things a consultant can offer is discipline. On your own, there can be a subtle and dangerous tendency to drift.

If the impetus for planning did not come from the governing board, it is critical at this point to get full board commitment to the planning process. If they don’t feel they own the process and the plan, they probably will not follow through to monitor implementation, and the plan will fall flat.

Also part of preparation is selection of a planning committee chair with the needed leadership and management skills, and a capable committee. This may be the first thing to do, or depending on the roles of chief executive, board chair and possibly a consultant, the committee may be assembled after the initial phases. The job descriptions of the chair and the committee will vary greatly from one organization and its process to another, as may the timing of their appointment, but for the process to result in success, the right fit can be critical.

Next post: Assessment