I am often hired to help non-profits compile strategic plans. I love this work. I love the energy that flows from the idea generation, the synergy that evolves as the team puts its mind together to shape their future, and the conversations that arise as a result of the planning process. This is where I find my HAPPY place. It feeds my passion for co-creation, conversations, and community.
A solid strategic plan, when actively followed and consistently assessed to recognize changing circumstances, can determine how far a non-profit (or a business, for that matter) advances towards stated goals. However, the process and the plan itself are only as good as preparation for the planning and the implementation of the plan.
As a non-profit strategist and consultant, I have several issues with strategic plans, all related to time and energy.
First: Strategic planning is not a short process or an afterthought.
In fact, it is a process that needs to be contemplated regularly and strategically, with an eye towards building a strong future. Relationships need to be established and nurtured over time, plans need to be put into place and followed, and evaluation and fine-tuning of the plan needs to be ongoing.
Good strategic planning – planning engages your stakeholders – requires solid, well-established relationships with people who want to invest in your organization, and a demonstrated willingness to take their feedback into consideration and apply it where possible. If you aren’t willing to take the feedback into consideration (see point two) you won’t get the engagement you want, and your plan won’t be as robust as it could be.
All of this leads to time and energy. These relationships, the investment of your community in your organization, and the meaningful conversations only happen if you spend time and energy on nurturing a web of connections and a culture of co-creating the future.
Secondly: Strategic planning is all about engagement.
It’s about including the voices of stakeholders (clients, partners, funders, suppliers, etc.), staff and management, and the Board. By inviting this broad range of minds to the table to be part of the conversation, you uncover ideas, perspectives, and opportunities that you may not otherwise discover. Co-creating an organization’s future is empowering, inspiring, and stimulating for those involved.
If what is learned is ignored, the exercise and excitement is mute. The planning process and resulting conversations will not instill trust, deepen relationships, or inspire continued engagement. This leaves stakeholders, team members, and other interested parties cautious about investing their time and energy in an organization that doesn’t follow through on shared ideas.
When done well, the information and ideas gathered, and conversations held, are GOLD. They can transform the relationships that exist within, and outside of, the organization – and propel the organization towards increase sustainability, improved partnerships, a positive future.
Thirdly: The plan must be a living document.
Sometimes, a team is motivated, energized, and ready to fly… until it isn’t.
Whether it is the Board, the Executive Director (ED), or the team, when the process is done and the shine comes off the conversation and the real work begins, occasionally there is an individual or a group that isn’t fully committed to following through. When this happens, the plan gets dusty, action ends, and the energy created during the planning process falls flat – leaving those truly committed to the plan frustrated and disillusioned.
For the plan to be useful, it needs to be a living tool – something that is consistently used to guide the direction of the organization. And this takes the commitment and shared activity of the whole team – not just specific people. The Board cannot carry the strategic plan activities on its own (unless it is a working board with no staff); the ED cannot carry the strategic plan on its own; and the staff cannot carry the strategic plan on its own.
Everyone needs to be involved and actively engaged in making the plan come to life, following through on their commitments, and investing their time and energy in making the plan come to life.
And honestly, a dusty strategic plan, is not worth anything. And those who are disillusioned and frustrated are left wondering about the whole process and the commitment of the team. It’s hard to come back from that.
So, prioritize your strategic planning and the associated foundational activities that give it depth and originality. Don’t treat it like an afterthought. Over the long-term, the results are worth it!