Rolling your eyes at the thought of strategic planning? Try 4 simple rules

Last week, a colleague called me about facilitating strategic planning for a new group he is managing through his association management firm. He warned me that the executive committee didn’t hold much value in strategic planning, but they had agreed to an initial conference call to, as he put it, “hear me out.”

At least half the calls I get from clients about strategic planning include dire warnings that they don’t really want to do planning, but feel it is a “necessary evil.” I became so intrigued by this apparent aversion to planning that I did my own investigating. What makes boards roll their eyes and shake their heads over the suggestion of annual planning?

Here’s what I found. For many boards (and nonprofit executives), strategic planning means:

1. A lecture from a “talking head” consultant;

2. General, unfocused discussion about what went wrong in the past year;

3. Participation in the dreaded “team-building” exercises;

4. Two to three days out of the office at a remote location (translation: misuse

of volunteer time and organizational resources); and

5. An added cost the organization either can’t or does not want to bear, because

they do not see the benefits of planning.

These perceptions from leadership are insightful. Who among us doesn’t cringe at the thought of two days devoted to strategic planning? Don’t we wonder what we’ll do and how (if) it will really help the organization? What if leadership doesn’t see the value in planning? Will the board only commit a couple of hours to planning as part of its regular board meeting?

To address board apprehensions about strategic planning, I follow a simple set of rules that guide my work with nonprofits:

Rule 1: An organization must devote one full day to strategic planning, with no other business conducted during that day.

Successful strategic planning requires the undivided attention of board and management, conducted with total commitment to the organization’s well being and its focus on the future. Too often boards try to maximize their allotted time together by attempting to conduct business, elect board members and do strategic planning work all at one meeting.

Example: One organization that hired me for a day of strategic planning ended up conducting a quarrelsome board meeting for five of the eight hours originally allotted for planning. The acrimonious nature of the meeting made it virtually impossible for the board to move into team planning, so we ended up rescheduling. Both the organization and I were frustrated about losing both time and resources due to their lack of focus on planning.

Rule 2: The board and management must commit to at least two days preparing for planning.

Successful strategic planning requires advance preparation to ensure the best use of time and organizational resources. I am a firm believer that planning can be accomplished in one day. However, in order to accomplish this, both the consultant and the planning participants must be prepared. Working with the organization’s leadership, I develop a pre-planning survey that is sent to all participants 30 to 45 days before the session. The survey asks for input about organizational value (current and future), mission, future goals, governance and financial issues. The survey results are used to finalize the agenda and identify relevant planning materials. (The survey also greatly decreases the chance of the planning being derailed by a hidden issue.)

Example: A newly-merged association I had been working with insisted they could not do planning in less than two days, even with all the preparation. They made arrangements to spend three full days in planning and board meetings. However, because of the pre-planning work we did, we wrapped up their planning agenda by 4:00 p.m. on the first day, allowing them to do a quick board meeting the next morning and head for home. The results from employing this process were gratifying for the association, as well as for me.

Rule 3: The board must come to consensus around issues discussed.

There is nothing more frustrating than spending a day of planning with no tangible results. An important component of strategic planning is the actual decision making around goals and issues important to the organization. Moving the board to consensus around strategic organizational components such as vision, mission and goals is essential in order to establish a clear direction for management to act upon.

Example: Working with the management of a local credit union (a not-for-profit financial institution), we designed parameters for the board to address at their annual board retreat. The board engaged in an exercise where they “voted” on their comfort level related to institutional growth and risk. The resulting board consensus was used by management to set goals for the upcoming year.

Rule 4: The organization must commit to developing a business plan with a budget and work timetable.

Successful strategic planning requires developing a business plan that becomes the organization’s roadmap for success. The most valuable outcome of strategic planning should not be the session report, but a true business plan with goals and strategies that lead the organization to accomplish its vision and mission. The board’s role is to set the direction by confirming vision, mission and three-year goals. Management’s role is to create a business plan that develops strategies, tactics and tangible outcomes that drive achievement of the goals set by the board.

Example: One organization that has been a client for several years created a “dashboard” that is reviewed at every board meeting to check progress and make strategic decisions about goals and strategies. They have had the same business plan for over three years, using their annual strategic planning to update the plan. In essence, they have created a “rolling business plan” that is carrying them to an ambitious future vision.

What happened to the group that asked me to justify their need for strategic planning? The subsequent call went well, because I had sent them a detailed contract with these four rules and a copy of a business plan to show them the results they would achieve from a day of planning. I’ll be facilitating their strategic planning later this year.

See also:

The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution

Nonprofit Strategic Positioning

The Nonprofit Business Plan

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