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September 24, 2020
Strategic Planning in Tough Times
By Jay Vogt

March 25, 2011 — Strategic planning makes more sense than ever in an era of scarce resources by giving you the alignment—and the nimbleness—to quickly seize opportunities that fit with your vision.

While Louis Pasteur famously declared, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” strategic planning favors the prepared organization, even in tough times.

Case in point: United Way of Central Massachusetts (UWCM). The organization embarked on a bold strategic planning process to help it achieve a bigger community impact, and raised more dollars in the process.

UWCM could have just continued to fund good agencies doing good work, but it wanted to do more – to demonstrably improve its whole community. UWCM convened a four-hour Vision Summit, engaging nearly 100 community leaders, and asked them, “What are two or three big, bold positive changes In our community that you would be proud to achieve that will dramatically improve the lives of the people and communities of Central Massachusetts?”

Three major themes emerged: educational opportunity, healthy communities, and strong families.

New Role for United Way

The leaders also asked UWCM to change its role, from being just a funder to being a convener which fosters community collaboration for results.

Taking these messages to heart, UWCM adopted a new mission, “Connect people and resources to improve the community,” described by UWCM Executive Director Tim Garvin as “simple and elegant.”

Next, UWCM convened a four-hour Metrics Summit, engaging nearly 100 community activists and leaders, to review research on outcome measures linked with the community’s desired impacts.

These diverse stakeholders helped define a set of metrics and targets that were appropriate to greater Worcester and would reliably indicate progress toward goals over 10 years.

From these conversations, UWCM set commitments in each of its three focus areas. In the area of family stability, for example, United Way committed to reducing the child poverty rate in central Massachusetts by 10% by 2020.

Inspired by its new mission, vision, and metrics, UWCM set about redesigning how it did its job. As Garvin put it, “If we want to create community change, we have to find a different way of doing business.”

UWCM reallocated its funding stream, reserving a core for meeting basic, immediate human needs like food, housing, and clothing, and directed the rest for creating lasting community change, rewarding an impact orientation and a collaborative approach.

Garvin envisions funding collaborating agencies, all using the same measures, leveraging each other’s resources, sharing the same professional development, and helping the same people. In the plan, this is called “moving from a non-aligned system of delivery to a coordinated system of impact.”

The new Promise Neighborhood Partnership program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, has a similar vision for communities, based on the impressive success of New York’s Harlem Children’s Zone. It asks disadvantaged neighborhoods to make four bold promises to their children:
  1. They will be ready for school.
  2. They will do well in school.
  3. They will graduate from college and be career-ready.
  4. Their families and community will support them.
UWCM knew that winning the program’s $500,000 planning grant would help it achieve outcomes in educational excellence, healthy communities, and strong families, and advance the planning conversation already well underway. In fact, although the request for proposals came out on a Monday, UWCM had a collaborative agreement with Clark University and others by Tuesday.

Strategic Planning Enabled Unexpected Success

As Garvin observed, “The strategic planning process gave us the validation, the platform, and the logic to do what we did.”

The highly competitive process attracted more than 900 letters of interest and 339 applications. Only 21 were funded; UWCM’s proposal was ranked fifth in the nation.

The financial implications of seizing and winning this opportunity are immense, because implementation funding follows planning work, and numerous federal agencies plan to supplement Promise Neighborhood dollars with additional monies of their own.

When UWCM announced this impressive win, a lead bank offered an unprecedented additional contribution of $50,000, on top of its annual campaign contribution, and simultaneously challenged other businesses to do the same.

UWCM’s effectiveness in making a dramatic positive impact on its community can only be measured with time, but it is already raising more dollars, even in these tough times.

Garvin said, “We were doing well before, but the planning process moved us to a different level. We positioned ourselves so that these good things could happen. Some of it might have happened by chance, but now it is coordinated.”

Chance has favored this prepared organization.

Jay W Vogt is president of Peoplesworth and author of Recharge Your Team: The Grounded Visioning Approach by Praeger. Contact him at
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