Many CausePlanet readers have participated in that long-standing tradition in nonprofit leadership: strategic planning. Most missives I’ve read on the subject are written from the vantage point of the glory days after the final document is written, approved and—hopefully—hard at work charting the direction of the organization. I thought it might be useful to hear from someone several months into the process and a few months away from completion—with a few fresh hints for anyone considering embarking on this important journey.
So where did the journey begin? The Denver Foundation has experienced significant growth and success in our work to invest in Metro Denver over the last decade. In partnership with generous local donors, the Foundation’s assets held in trust for the community have increased from $68 million to over $500 million, while giving more than $100 million to hundreds of nonprofits. The Foundation has accomplished this without the benefit of a formal strategic plan. We operate within the parameters of a set of vision statements penned by our president, as well as annual work plans to accomplish ongoing goals.
Last year, the Foundation’s Board of Trustees decided that this moment in the midst of the organization’s dramatic growth provided an opportunity for long-term planning. The board formed a long-range planning task force, with key management staff involved in all discussions. The board hired a consultant, Karla Raines of Corona Research, to serve as coordinator of the process, and formed subcommittees in the areas of grantmaking, governance, resource development, leadership and positioning.
A few challenges revealed themselves early on. One of the first steps in strategic planning is gathering information about the current state of the organization. In the Foundation’s case, we discovered some deficits in our information management system. For instance, we serve a seven-county Metro area and learned that we could not easily pull data organized by county. This revelation has resulted in a concurrent effort to assess our IT systems and search for solutions to address the gaps in what it can provide.
Another important step in planning is gathering information about the state of the sector in which the organization operates. While trustees receive a significant amount of such material in their orientation, we recognized that long-term planning required an in-depth look at trends and norms in the community foundation field. To this end, staff interviewed several colleagues at other community foundations and pulled together briefing books for the task force. The benefits of this exercise were numerous, opening our minds to new ideas and possibilities for the future.
The final challenge I’ll mention is a common one in my experience with strategic planning as both a staff and board member: staying at the level of strategy without being drawn into tactics. I’m a doer, and I love tactics. It’s always easy for me to think of new publications, Web tools, potential media placements … the list goes on. Strategic planning, however, requires a higher-level view. What are the strategic elements that guide our tactics? What are the parameters for the creative thinking we put into our work? In the case of the task force’s leadership subcommittee, members recommended three main types of leadership strategies in which the Foundation will engage: convenings, partnerships and initiatives—with associated considerations for when each strategy would be put into action. This will help the staff form tactical plans in the months and years to come.
Benefits of the process
Beyond the challenges, I’ve experienced significant positive elements from the process. One such element has been to witness, in more intimate settings, the tremendous talents and perspectives offered by our board members as leaders of the Foundation. The purpose of a board is to provide oversight and direction for the mission of the organization, and our trustees offer so much to this work. I only wish that a greater number of our staff could have such an experience with the trustees.
Another plus has been to hear from trustees the recognition that previous boards and staff members have done many things right over the past ten years. They recognize that the planning process should build on our successes, not dismantle them merely for the purpose of creating something new. The purpose of planning is, in part, to build intentionality and shared understanding around strategies that work, identify those areas that need help, and look out to the horizon for what the opportunities are. The members of the task force are accomplishing this with great success.
To conclude, I offer a few pieces of advice. First, trust the process, even if you are not a “process person.” The time it takes to come to agreement on a future direction is essential—especially when trustees have diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Second, find ways to live with change and uncertainty and to help your colleagues, whether board or staff members, do the same. Impending change breeds fear in many people, particularly when they feel that the change is happening behind closed doors. It is important to be as transparent and inclusive as possible, offering people plenty of opportunities for input. Finally, celebrate achievements along the way. In our case, the governance subcommittee completed its work ahead of schedule, which offered the task force a sense of accomplishment early on.
From the challenging, exciting and scary middle of the journey, I can honestly say that I’m enjoying this process. I hope you’ll be able to say the same thing.
By Rebecca Arno, vice president of communications for The Denver Foundation (www.denverfoundation.org), a community foundation serving the seven-county Metro Denver area.