Strategic Planning the Right Way

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on May 13th, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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Strategic planning
just may be the most important policy a board of directors, executing its governance responsibilities, may create.  And yet, far too often, it isn’t done “right”.  Why?

Let me be clear about two things.  First, a board does not create a strategic plan by itself.  And second, there is no one “right” way to do strategic planning; there is, however, a “right” cast of characters and order of appearance.

When I say a board doesn’t create a strategic plan by itself, I mean just that.  A strategic plan, because it is such an important organizational policy, must be driven by the board with deep board involvement at every step of the process.  But staff, from executive director all the way down to the last rung on the organizational chart, must also be included.  Depending upon the size of the organization, this inclusion may look different and different for the various boxes on the organizational chart, from attending meetings and retreats to completing a survey to participating in focus groups, to any combination of the above.  Ultimately, the work this group creates must be approved by the board of directors before it can become official policy.  Hence, my wording that the board creates a strategic plan.

And when I say there is no “right” way to do strategic planning, I mean just that.  Line up 10 strategic planning consultants and you will likely get 10 (okay, maybe only seven) different ways of doing it.

But you should get only one cast of characters list—as here there is a “right list.”  As suggested above, the key player is the board—and not a subcommittee of the board, but the full board.  It must lead the charge, support the charge, and take their leadership role of the charge.  Well, you get the picture.  Next comes the executive director, and the rest of staff.  Then there are all of those external stakeholders, from clients to collaborators to competitors to funders to key thought leaders.  All of those voices have to be tapped and thrown into the mix that the board and lead staff members distill and use in identifying the organization’s strategic priorities.  Too often, however, this cast of characters is topped by the executive director, who takes the lead, takes charge and uses the board only after the fact, to get its buy in and, of course, its vote to make it all official.

Why are these two fundaments of strategic planning so ignored and violated?  Two common reasons:  one, the executive director wants to control and two, the board doesn’t want to be bothered.  The former is the more common explanation and results from the executive director who thinks s/he knows best, wants to drive the planning work, turning to the board almost after the fact, looking for its buy in and, of course, the needed approval to transform hopes into policy.  In so doing, though, the planning process has been robbed of the diversity of minds and perspective that the board represents and board members have been robbed of the opportunity to learn, grow and make the contribution they wanted to make in originally joining the board.

We do often hear statements to the effect that the board doesn’t want to be bothered with strategic planning.   This generally is heard from two groups of nonprofits:  those with both a good executive director and an engaged board and those with a controlling executive director using a lazy board as explanation for why s/he is controlling.  To the engaged board that doesn’t want to be bothered, I challenge them, if given the chance, to see the centrality of strategic planning to the delivery of mission promises and their execution of their responsibilities as a board.   They generally turn around relatively easily.  Unfortunately, that same opportunity doesn’t normally present itself with a lazy board, as the last thing the controlling executive director wants is an awakened and enlightened board.

In ignoring the right process and cast of characters, no one thinks of what is lost; they only think of getting my way, it is easier and quicker, etc.  But the loss to the organization and ability to push forward that mission is huge.  First, the learning experience that happens for board members during a strategic planning process is lost, and not replaceable by any other experience.

Board members learn more about the mission, clients, the organization, the environment, etc., in going through a planning process than in years of board meetings.

Second, there is a community of “we” that is created during a planning process, as all levels of staff and board members work together over the course of the multiple-month planning process, as opposed to the culture of us versus them that too often prevails in nonprofits.  No “right” planning process, no community of we, as no other activity creates, as a serendipitous byproduct, that community of we.

Third, board members get to do what they thought they were going to do when they joined the board:  use their skills, talents, brain power to help move the organization and its mission delivery forward.  Far too many board, unfortunately, think they need to reserve strategic thinking to strategic planning retreats instead of bringing it to every board meeting.  Thus, that once every three year opportunity to engage the strategic brains of board members is lost.  And fourth, the opportunity to recharge and reinvigorate everyone’s commitment to the mission is absolutely lost, as it is concentrated in the hands of a few.

Instead of running from strategic planning, boards should embrace it.  Instead of “protecting” boards from “having to do” strategic planning, executive directors should hold their feet to the fire and sing the praises of their involvement.  If you are truly committed to the organization’s mission, be you staff or board member, there really is only one “right” way to do strategic planning.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.