Are We Having Fun Yet? Or, Strategic Planning in Complicated Times

December 19, 2011

By Allison Trimarco
Founder, Creative Capacity, LLC

We’ve all been there…we decide that it’s time for planning at our organization, so we carefully set up a retreat meeting and craft an agenda designed to help us “be strategic” in our thinking about our future. As soon as everyone has gotten their first cup of coffee, however, the process starts spinning out of control. Board member Bob decides that he wants to change the entire mission of the organization before noon, and refuses to move on until everyone agrees with him. Betty hasn’t been to a board meeting for three years, but shows up to the strategic planning retreat to talk about how they do it on the other six boards she’s on. The Board Chair and Executive Director try valiantly to get everyone talking about the key challenges the group is facing, but diverging focus and personal agendas eventually wear them down. So, they write up a summary of the retreat discussion, label it “strategic plan,” and file it in its rightful place at the bottom of a desk drawer underneath several boxes of binder clips and a bottle of white-out that no one uses anymore.

These kinds of experiences have given strategic planning a bad rap among nonprofit leaders. Too often, the process leaves board and staff members feeling tired and disappointed. Where does this feeling of time wasted come from? I think it’s from planning processes that:

  • Are not grounded in the reality of the current situation that your organization is facing. These are the processes that start with false questions like, “if money were no object and you could do whatever you want, what would you do?”
  • Don’t offer board, staff, volunteers, and other stakeholders the chance to collaborate in determining what’s most important to the organization and how we will work together to achieve it.
  • Stir up conflicts about key issues like mission, programs, and constituents – but don’t do anything to resolve these important questions.
  • Include every idea in the final plan, rather than determining the best ideas and prioritizing them. This lack of decision-making results in a plan that is too large to realistically be implemented.

If you’ve been involved in a planning process like this, chances are your strategic plan is also filed in a bottom drawer under the old white-out. And you’re relieved that it will be awhile before you have to “plan” again.

This sense that strategic planning is just a waste of time is such a missed opportunity, however – both for the organization and for its board and staff members. Done right, strategic planning is the fun part! It’s the moment when you actually get to influence the organization’s direction, what it will do for the community, and how that will happen. These are probably the things you wanted to do when you got involved with the nonprofit in the first place, but most of us spend most of our time thinking about far more mundane, everyday matters. Planning is the moment when passion for the mission and the community can be at the center of our discussion – and even if that’s not as fun as a day at the beach, it should be meaningful and enjoyable for all of us.

So, what kind of planning process will actually result in decisions you can use?

1) Before you do anything else, take the time to look at where you are.

Good strategic planning is a process – it takes time, asks hard questions, and aims to make everyone smarter about the organization and its situation. Start your analysis by giving board, staff, key volunteers, and constituents the chance to contribute their thoughts, so people know that their ideas matter. This initial roundup of people’s opinions will also identify key issues that need to be part of the planning discussion.

2) Ask hard questions.

Planning is not the moment to embrace the status quo. It’s the time when we should bring up third rail questions such as, “are all of our programs functioning well?,” or “what does the economic situation mean for us?” or even, “ how will the demographic shifts in our community affect the need for our work in the future?” The most effective planning processes tackle these questions in a deliberate, structured way designed to give you facts that you can act upon. Here are some ideas about questions to ask about your external environment and a simple method for evaluating your programs:

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3) Use what you learn from evaluating your current situation to answer big questions about your mission, vision, and programs.

Our organizations don’t live in a vacuum, and we shouldn’t make key decisions about our mission, vision, and programs based on the opinions of the small number of people on our board and staff. What do we want to do? is only part of the question – we should really be thinking what do our constituents need us to do? and what can we be really, really good at? We can form more meaningful answers to these questions when we look at our current successes, feedback from our constituents and stakeholders, and the conditions in our environment that are likely to interact with our work. Really strategic planning takes all of these factors into account when defining mission and vision.

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4) Choosing everything is the same as choosing nothing.

Often, so many exciting ideas are generated during brainstorming that we decide we can’t choose – we want to include all of them! But this is a surefire way to make it impossible to implement your plan. You have to make decisions about where you will focus your energy in the coming years. This is what will make your organization more strategic (and your plan more readily implemented). Not sure how to make these tough choices? There are a million decision-making techniques, but here’s a description of one of my favorites:

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Once you decide on your goals, make sure you also decide on your objectives – the results that you want to achieve. Too often, we build plans that emphasize the activities that will fill up our to-do lists. But we only work on our activities in order to achieve results for our mission, constituents, and community. What are the results you really want? Knowing this will make your organization more strategic every day, even if you’re not “planning:”

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5) If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.

The most common complaint I hear about strategic plans is, “we did all this planning, but then we never did anything about it.” Usually, this is a symptom of a planning process that was not inclusive enough (so people don’t feel ownership over the decisions and won’t implement them), or a plan that is not grounded in reality (so we could never possibly have the money or human resources to implement it). You can make it more likely that you will actually implement your plan if you:

  • Have board and staff collaborate in the process so they feel enthusiastic ownership about plan decisions.
  • Force yourselves to prioritize all the good ideas that will come up, so that your plan focuses on the most important things the organization can do.
  • Create a budget that outlines what it will cost to implement the plan, and how you will obtain those resources. These financial projections can inform your annual budgeting.
  • Focus on implementation right out of the gate – if you don’t implement initial work in the first six months, the opportunity is lost. Make sure everyone knows what they should do, and make sure they do it!

Most importantly, remember: if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. If you want to change something about your organization, you have to change the way you approach your work. You can choose to make plan priorities essential to your work – and hopefully spend more of your time and energy focusing on the interesting, challenging, fulfilling projects that emerged during your planning process.

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Thinking about starting a planning process at your organization? Here are some resources to help:

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Allison Trimarco is the founder and principal of Creative Capacity, a consulting firm that collaborates with nonprofits to find creative solutions to management challenges. She is also an affiliated consultant and instructor at The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University.