Do you remember that childhood game called “Freeze”? If only we could play it now with the world in which our nonprofits operate. “Freeze,” I’d yell, when it comes time to create a strategic plan — “Stop moving, we have to plan.” After all, setting direction for the organization is one of the board’s primary responsibilities. But no, there’s no freezing the world today. The “new normal” is change — fast paced, constant, and, at times, unpredictable. In fact, organizations that do attempt to stop the world while creating a strategic plan usually end up with credenza ware — a document that sits on the credenza collecting dust until the time comes to create another plan.
It’s not surprising to me that BoardSource’s new study, Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, found that boards are doing only a mediocre job at monitoring programs and setting direction. It’s hard to do when the external environment in which our organizations operate won’t stand still for a moment.
In today’s new normal, the key to successful strategic planning is to do a little changing ourselves — to approach strategic planning not as an event or a means to an end but rather as a dynamic, ongoing learning process or cycle.
The process begins with board and staff co-creating an aspirational vision that answers what has become the iconic and ubiquitous Gandhi question: What is the change we want to see in the world? From there, it moves forward with intentionality.
Learning occurs in many ways:
Questioning our board and staff members, clients, and important thinkers, funders, and partners (via interviews, surveys, and today social media as well) and truly listening to what they say, being mindful of our own biases. I recommend the following two lines of inquiry:
- Strategic impact questions that go directly to what the organization has been doing: What is our core work? How well is our organization performing — programmatically, financially, and administratively? Are we making a difference? How do we know? Who else does our work, and are we competing for the same funds?
- Generative questions that look at the work of the organization from a different angle: If we do X, what will we look like? What is the biggest gap between what we claim we are and what our actual performances or actions say we are?
Assessing: Did we reach our goal? What stood in the way? What propelled us forward? What measures support this assessment?
Researching: What do relevant studies — whether trend analysis, demographics, or research — tell us about the changing landscape (economic, social, and environmental) in which the organization operates?
Transforming knowledge into action: By asking strategic and generative questions, listening, assessing, and researching, we surface the needs, possibilities, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and signs of caution that should be addressed as we design our plan — one that we believe (based on our learning) and hope (based on our passion) will propel the organization toward its vision. As we identify and choose between different design elements or strategies, we know that nothing can be set in stone; our strategies must be adaptive to the changing reality, lend themselves to effective monitoring, and remain relevant and imperative. And if we later discover through monitoring that we aren’t meeting our strategic goals, then we ask more questions, we learn more, and we apply that learning to our design. Amending a design, a course of action, a plan, should become part of the board’s culture and ongoing oversight responsibilities.
I am reminded of a community organization where the board and staff designed a strategic plan with an ambitious goal — all of the community’s school-age children would receive all necessary vaccinations before the start of the school year. Funding was provided for clinics to administer the vaccines. Before the start of school, on the board-designated target date, the data showed that not many families had taken advantage of the free vaccines. This board convened to review the strategy. They asked the strategic impact and generative questions referenced above and listened without bias to the information they received. They learned that the strategy goal was still relevant and imperative but the delivery mechanism needed tweaking. As a result, they approved funding for the clinics to remain open on Saturdays and some evenings. Again, they monitored the results and again, they found they had fallen short. So, they got back up on the horse a third time, asking, listening, learning, and changing their plan yet again to include the purchase of a mobile clinic. Same strategy — ongoing learning, until they got the result they wanted and their community needed.
In today’s world, we must bring an adaptive capacity to the planning process. Our board culture of oversight must change as well. Look at that community organization — the board convened, continued to learn, and evolved the organization’s strategies as necessary. Continuous learning and non-static design must become the new normal for us. And the collective wisdom gained from the planning process will enable us to follow our vision; design for the challenges we seek to address; and implement, measure, learn, govern, adapt, and grow deliberately and strategically to meet and perhaps even anticipate the critical role our organizations will continue to have.