September 20, 2017
 
Benefits of a Well Crafted Strategic Planning Process

By Sam Frank

Sam Frank
Despite the all-too-common experience of tedious, interminable, and ineffective strategic planning exercises, nonprofit organizations have a real need for self-examination, strategic assessment, and thoughtful planning.

While the fundamental nature of the basic human needs addressed by non-profits remains constant, changes in external conditions, expectations, funding, and competition can profoundly affect the viability of an individual organization. Everyday operational necessities can obscure important issues and changed situations in a fog of urgent demands.

The critical role of a well-designed planning process is to blast through that vision-limiting fog and find a shared sense of clarity, focus, and direction.

Strategic planning is a formal process that allows a governing board to assess the situation and prospect of the organization, and to chart its future. Pursued wisely, it is also an effective tool for developing in board and staff a meaningful and comprehensive understanding of the workings, constraints and opportunities of the organization. In fact, board and staff development are often the most important products of strategic planning.

In any organization, effective planning requires both leadership and consensus. Various constituencies have their own legitimate concerns and their own limited perspectives, which for them can obscure the critical issues of the institution’s larger mission. A well-designed planning process can form the kernel of consensus around which further cooperative developments can take place.

Strategic Planning Builds Consensus around Mission

A strategic implementation plan will be valuable for the institution, but often far more important are the benefits of the process of developing it: habits of thought and cooperative participation, exposure to the disparate perspectives of other stakeholders, familiarization of the governing board with the intricacies and contributions of the institution’s various constituencies, and a general alertness to concerns of strategic importance. One good definition of strategic planning is building consensus around mission.

To be truly effective, a planning process should be custom-designed to the specific needs and strengths of an institution’s structure, culture, situation, and people. A well-designed strategic exercise will make all stakeholders feel involved and valued. It will recognize and incorporate their concerns, but avoid the pitfalls of democratic (or veto-based) decision-making. Such a planning process can be characterized as transparent.

When developed carefully, a transparent process will be:
  • Inclusive: While the planning work is largely conducted by a small group, it invites participation by all members of all constituencies. Inclusiveness facilitates the release of energy and enthusiasm throughout an organization.

    A broad range of people have good ideas; if all the vision comes from the executive director alone, or from the governing board, frustration and a sense of disenfranchisement will likely interfere with success. Just the act of asking for feedback will improve morale and promote buy-in. This also works the other way. If an organization is paralyzed by excess democracy, a well-designed transparent process can separate participation from decision-making.

  • Open: It is not enough to invite people to participate in a meeting, a survey or a focus group.

    From start to finish, a strategic planning process accompanied by an internal communication plan will be far more effective in achieving organization-wide support. Once ideas have been gathered from stakeholders, it is essential to communicate back to them that they have been heard. After feedback is solicited and analyzed, the leadership should include regularly in subsequent communications a discussion of insights gained and, as appropriate, changes that stem from them.

  • Accountable: A planning process that gets sidetracked or shelved is worse than no process at all.

    Instead of invigorating and inspiring stakeholders, an incomplete or unimplemented plan will demoralize them. Once you begin a planning process you must be prepared to complete and implement it.

  • Replicable: A well-documented planning process becomes not just a one-time expense but an investment that prepares both for current decisions and for future deliberations.

    A strategic plan is a good thing, but a culture of planning—an ongoing habit of strategic thinking in governance and management—is the vital sign of a truly healthy organization.
Sam Frank, founder of Synthesis Partnership, helps nonprofits facing or creating change with integrated planning, organizational development and governance. He can be reached at 617-969-1881 or by email at sbf@synthesispartnership.com.

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