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January 20, 2022
Establishing a Process for Successful Strategic Planning
By Ora Grodsky and Jeremy Phillips

Jeremy Phillips + Ora Grodsky
Jeremy Phillips and Ora Grodsky
Nonprofits that embark on strategic planning usually have many questions that get to the heart of who they are and what they should be doing, answers to which provide the foundation for a good planning process.

Among the questions nonprofits should ask themselves are: Who are we and why do we exist? What is the change we are seeking to make in the world? What are the most effective ways for us to make that change? Will the process exhaust or invigorate us? Will it be worth our time? Will the plan actually be useful?

These questions arise for good reason. A good planning process is important for building momentum, and the resulting plan must be useful in helping the organization to effectively fulfill its mission.

Though an organization may be itching to get right to the heart of its strategic planning work, carefully setting up the planning process is crucial for everything that follows. Time and energy invested in pre-planning is not just an ounce but a pound of prevention, an integral step toward a successful process and plan.
  • Make sure strategic planning is appropriate for your organization. Organizations can sometimes look to strategic planning as a magic bullet, but it isn’t always what they need. Don’t engage in strategic planning unless you are prepared to change how you operate or take on new endeavors.

  • Develop strategy primarily for internal reasons. If plans are developed primarily with outside interests in mind—funders, for example—they are unlikely to be useful as long-term guides.

  • Before planning begins, create a planning process map. Developing a guide for the process can alleviate some of the anxiety associated with planning. Important elements of a planning process map include: critical questions to be answered, strategies for including the voices of stakeholders, protocols for decision-making and communication, roles and responsibilities of participants and consultants, a timeline, a budget, and a blueprint for the completed plan.

  • There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all process or plan. Every organization has its own configuration of unique questions, strengths, challenges, and resources. The length, depth, and focus of the strategic planning process can vary widely, and organizations should design processes that fit their own distinctive characteristics, culture, and needs.

  • Form a Planning Committee. This group can shepherd the process, synthesize data and ideas, and prepare proposals. The more diverse the committee, the better: draw from different roles and levels within the organization (board, staff, management, even outside stakeholders), as well as the diversity of opinions about who and what the organization should be.

  • Make sure you have appropriate leadership. Internal leadership is essential to the success of the planning process and the plan’s implementation, providing the hand on the rudder that keeps the ship on course toward the real issues it faces. Middle and lower-level leaders can be instrumental in shepherding the planning process and implementation, but top leadership must support the endeavor.

  • Clarify decision-making and influence prior to starting the process. People within organizations, particularly staff members, can be unsure of how their voices and opinions will inform the plan. This can lead to increased anxiety and mistrust. Developing a clear framework, prior to the start of the process, for who will have input into which elements of the plan and how decisions will be made can eliminate confusion later on and promote genuine participation.

  • Agree on the components of the completed plan at the outset. Will the plan be a detailed road map or a lean outline? While the final plan may contain some different elements than originally intended, agreeing upon a clear outline in advance facilitates better understanding when the need for flexibility arises.

  • Establish clear, shared definitions of key planning terms. We often find that people using the same language mean different things. Taking time to explicate the meanings of key terms and ideas will pay big dividends for future conversations.

  • Anticipate the unexpected and keep the process nimble. Just like completed plans, the best-laid strategic planning processes need to be able to respond to life’s curveballs. Sometimes the process itself surfaces underlying issues and must be adjusted to accommodate the unforeseen.

  • Be prepared for difficult conversations. Whether an organization knows that hard decisions lie ahead, or surfaces unexpected issues during the process, everyone should be prepared to take part in meaningful conversations in order to move beyond a superficial plan. Successfully engaging in such conversations builds organizational muscle and fosters the habit of addressing issues as they emerge, which in turn increases the organization’s planning and implementation capacity.
Strategic plans can propel organizations forward with essential guidance for daily operations and future decision-making. When developed in a thoughtful way, the process itself can be galvanizing, creating positive momentum and more organizational focus and energy.

Ora Grodsky and Jeremy Phillips are consultants in the Boston area who provide training and organizational development services to organizations working for social justice.
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