Board Leadership: Strategic Planning — It’s Not a Sprint

January 7, 2015


What’s the most common phone call that consultants get from nonprofits?

“We’re doing a strategic plan and we’re having our retreat on such-and-such a date. Can you help us?”

This call usually indicates that the organization is hoping to sprint through its strategic plan in a single day — but really effective planning can’t be done in a speedy few hours. It’s more of a 10K kind of experience (some might say a marathon!) that requires some preparation to do it right.


While a one-day planning retreat is often a useful and productive part of a planning process, it’s definitely not the starting line. Gathering your board and staff together (especially if you’re asking everyone to give up a Saturday) should only be done once a smaller planning team has spent some time thinking about the current situation and done some work to make the conversation productive and interesting.

The best planning retreats come after an organization’s leaders have done some situation analysis — a fancy term for “thinking about our current situation.” This pre-retreat thinking should look at both the organization’s internal operations and the external conditions affecting it, so that you come to the retreat with new information and perspective. This will make for a more interesting day for all — and also makes it more likely that you’ll actually be able to resolve some of the strategic questions in front of you.

How do you know what to include in your situation analysis? Start by thinking about the questions that come up over and over again, but you just can’t seem to resolve. What topics have been lingering on board and staff meeting agendas for way too long? What concerns are really bothering you, but you’re just not sure what to do about them? You should aim to resolve these issues during your planning, but you will usually need some new information in order to do so. After all, if you could resolve the question with the information you already have, you probably would have done so by now.

For example, I once worked on a strategic plan for a small theatre company that felt that their venue was way too small for them. They wanted to move their productions to a bigger space (with bigger expenses). But a relatively straightforward look at their ticket sales history showed that they were not actually selling out most of their performances — it just felt as though they were, since they had minimal box office and front of house staff, so any good crowd was overwhelming to them.

Rather than changing to a new, more expensive performance space (which is surely what they would have decided to do if they had just posed this question at their retreat), the situation analysis showed that they would be better off concentrating on improving operations and creating a long-term strategy for increasing audience attendance over time, so they could consider a larger venue in the future.

Here are some tools for conducting a situation analysis:

Of course, there are many more tools on the Internet to help you consider your current situation, and there’s also good, old-fashioned testing our long-held assumptions (for example, I recently had a client test what percentage of their individual donor base was made up of subscribers to their music series, and they were shocked at how low this number actually was).

However you approach it, try to prepare for your planning retreat by generating information that will give everyone involved a new way to think about your big questions. You’ll have a more productive retreat day  and your planning process will leave you feeling accomplished like a marathon runner – rather than winded after a sprint when you still have miles to go.

For more helpful posts featuring some of the highlights from the Dodge Foundation Board Leadership Training series, click here.

Allison Trimarco is the founder of Creative Capacity, which helps nonprofit organizations increase their management capacity and mission effectiveness. Her practice focuses on fundraising, communications, strategic  planning, and Board development projects. She also serves as an instructor and consultant at The Nonprofit Center, and is also an adjunct faculty member at both Drexel University and La Salle University.