Now we’re getting somewhere – a nonprofit strategic planning process

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photo credit: alexabbound under CC license via flickr

[Fourth in a series. Read more about what's wrong with most nonprofit's strategic plans, how to evaluate the current strategy, and see an agenda to kick off a strategic planning process.]

This post might as easily be titled, “How to avoid the syndrome ‘we’re lost but making good time*.'”

The strategic planning process that I’m facilitating for a local Sacramento nonprofit is getting really exciting as its reaches the half-way point.

Having decided in October that it wanted to establish a direction and measurable outcomes goal to guide its efforts for the next five years, the Board set aside an evening in February to brainstorm. Before jumping into idea creation, the group received a refresher course on changes in the internal and external environment from the executive director. A substantive discussion followed about potential audiences or groups that the agency might choose to focus upon. But perhaps the most interesting discussion was about potential outcomes.

Small nonprofits usually think — and report — output, not outcomes. How many clients have they served? How many sites were they in? Organizations rarely have the resources to collect or analyze data about long-term impact such as whether a problem was prevented or fixed. And as a result, they usually don’t think in those terms, even if their mission statements are visionary and ambitious.

The discussion of outcomes set the table for a very productive brainstorming session about potential directions the agency could adopt. As members offered ideas, they were asked to suggest a specific target and provide an example measure of success. Their ideas filled the better part of two flip chart pads.

By the end of the three-hour meeting, 10 draft goal statements had been formulated. Participants used the time-honored sticky dot method of voting to identify ideas worth exploring. Three goals emerged with a preponderance of dots.

Board members were then invited to volunteer to join one of three subgroups that would develop a draft goal into a proposal for the full Board to consider at its next mini-retreat. Using a common template, the groups met to discuss:

  • The target audience: Is the description specific enough?
  • Outcomes: What meaningful changes would we aim to achieve (1-3 measures)?
  • Need:  What objective information is available about the need and the trend in that need?
  • Service gap: Is there a gap in addressing this need?
  • Before-and-after: How would the organization change if it adopted this goal? What likely programs would be developed, changed (or even eliminated)?
  • Assets: What capabilities or allies do we have that could help the organization achieve the goal?
  • Models: Are we aware of successful models in other communities we might emulate?
The three proposals were presented at a mini-retreat earlier this month. It was not expected that one would emerge as the clear choice. And that was the case! However, it did result in two goal ideas going to the next step of development. More information will be collected to help inform the Board as it chooses its five-year directions.
Observations to date
  • Nonprofits typically don’t have real long-term strategic plans in part because they don’t have staff or consultants to develop them. A good strategic plan takes a ton of work.
  • The step-wise process we’ve used so far has made it possible to engage the brain power of the Board and to let them do the initial tilling of the field. New Board members have become connected and engaged faster than they would have by attending monthly meetings, while the wisdom of longer-term Board members has been tapped.
  • The challenge now will be for the group to identify what information will help them to take a step back and be good governors and risk-managers for the organization. They will have to distance themselves from the ideas they have helped to bring to the table.
  • It’s time for staff – with a little third-party help from me – to put effort into developing both ideas. As we move closer to a draft direction, the executive director should have a stronger leadership role. The executive director knows the most about the capacity of the organization, the resources of the community, and the appetite of funders.
Stay tuned!

*’We’re lost but making good time’ is taken from Venture Philanthropy’s Leap of Reason Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity, featuring essays by top nonprofit management consultants, nonprofit leaders and philanthropists.

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