By Danielle Rocheleau
In July 2021 Habitat for Humanity Northumberland’s Governance Committee, which includes Executive Director Meaghan Macdonald, initiated a process to renew its outdated strategic plan.
“We knew we had to develop another,” said Macdonald. “We had new leadership and new board members and the environment around us had changed so much. There were tough questions that we needed to address as an organization, and we needed an action plan to keep us focused.”
Habitat for Humanity Northumberland (HFHN) initiated a search to secure an outside partner to guide the organization through the process. HFHN spent a long time coming to a decision. The right partner was essential.
The administration team had already participated in Laridae’s Management Training Program and the board had taken Laridae’s governance training to refresh their understanding of roles in the wake of HFHN leadership changes. From this exposure, they knew Laridae had the necessary qualifications to run the project.
“We definitely wanted an outside partner to lead the Strategic Planning process so that we could focus on the plan itself,” said Macdonald. “The deciding factor for us in choosing Laridae was their extensive experience with non-profits and their deep understanding of what organizations need.”
The organization in context
Habitat for Humanity Northumberland began in 1998 as a small, grassroots organization with a group of industrious volunteers.
Over the course of the last 23 years, HFHN has grown into a respected and innovative leader in Northumberland County at the forefront of the region’s housing support services.
Habitat Northumberland Today
- 115 families supported to either achieve or maintain affordable housing
- 17 staff members (2022)
- 132 volunteers with 6,885 volunteer hours (2021)
- Operational budget of $1.26 million (2022)
- Mortgage and loan assets of $5,392,791 (2021)
The Impact of Canada’s Affordable Housing Crisis
“How do you deliver affordable homeownership in a market where that very phrase seems to be an oxymoron? And how do you deliver it in a way that is true to the community that needs it? How can it be cost-efficient when costs have gone up so much?” asked Macdonald.
Housing instability and scarcity is at a crisis level across the country. New demographics are finding it harder and harder to find secure and affordable housing. This is due to several compounding factors.
Cost to purchase is at an all-time high
The average resale price of a home in Northumberland County in January 2022 ($1.12M) was almost double the average resale price in 2020 ($566K), and only affordable to the 90th income percentile in the county.
Cost to build is at an all-time high
The Construction costs for townhouses and single-detached homes in Canada rose 23% from 2020 to 2021.
Cost of living is rising
The consumer price index has risen 11% from 2019 to 2022, whereas the minimum wage has only risen 7% over the same period.
Population is growing
The population of Northumberland County is projecting to rise by 11% from 2020 to 2030, according to the Province of Ontario.
Habitat for Humanity Northumberland seeks to provide stability through promoting affordable homeownership. Through their Homeownership Program, the Cobourg-based organization helps individuals and families in financially vulnerable situations build and buy quality affordable homes.
“When this is your mandate, service delivery can feel like an existential crisis,” said Macdonald. “How can we continue doing what we’re doing in this environment? The strategic planning process helped us put an actionable framework around many of these impossible questions.”
Strategic planning as a process
Like so much other planning activity, the benefit of strategic planning is as much about the plan as it is about the work that goes into it up front. The process of strategic planning can offer a refresher on the organization’s priorities and open up opportunity for much needed conversations at all levels of the organization.
The strategic planning process followed by HFHN was heavy on information-gathering and assessment; activity that helped provide perspective on the organization’s past and present state, and identify factors that might influence its future.
This involved reviewing documentation including past plans and status reports, performing an environmental scan of issues affecting the sector, and deep stakeholder engagement.
The information was organized, analyzed, and presented back for discussion and ideation.
“The information gathering phases also involved asking HFHN to reflect on our own information – on what we already knew about our sector, on what we’ve done well so far, and on what still needs doing,” said Macdonald. “It was also a time of really getting to know our board and answering the questions they had about our organization.”
Leaning into new values
Early on, the team realized that they needed to put guard rails around the ideas they were exploring to help narrow their focus and bring rationale to their decisions.
“What I loved most about our strategic planning process was that when we went off route, we conducted a values exercise,” said Macdonald. “We needed guiding principles to shape our direction, and we didn’t have those going in. But we did soon after.”
They took a critical look at the language that had been shared by Habitat for Humanity Canada and created an updated set of values based on the priorities of their Board, and which resonated more strongly with the team.
The exercise distilled their thinking down to three meaningful words that aligned very closely with strategic pillars ultimately laid out in the plan, and which helped the team feel more connected with the result:
- People: We believe in the worth and dignity of every human being. We lead our work with compassion, celebrating diversity and integrating equity in everything we do. We respect the people we serve and those that help us in our efforts, recognizing them as our greatest asset.
- Partnership: We know that we can achieve more, together. Through meaningful and mutually beneficial collaboration, we aim to establish trusting relationships, and leverage each other’s capacity and strengths in a way that effectively drives lasting change for our community.
- Adaptability: We acknowledge that change is inevitable. We pride ourselves in our ability to respond to the ever-evolving landscape. We do so by leaning into our courage, and our resourcefulness, while maintaining our accountability to the people we serve and to our community.
“So now when Laridae asks HFHN to lean into our values, we can!” notes Macdonald. “By the way, if we were to create values for just the administration team, I know one of them would be ‘cake’!”
Stakeholder engagement: key to success
A major contributor to strategic plan development comes from detailed engagement with an organization’s primary stakeholders, through surveys, phone or in-person interviews, and focus groups.
Stakeholder engagement can sometimes yield uncomfortable truths that are difficult to hear, or criticisms that seem unfair, given the struggles non-profit leaders and managers face on an ongoing basis.
Going through the results in a facilitated retreat helped get the board up to speed on issues and validated positions taken by staff to this point. There is sometimes a disconnect between frontline staff and board members who, by nature of their roles, are removed from everyday challenges.
“This exercise really helped frame our front-line reality for the board,” said Macdonald. “This process brought us all to a place of equal understanding.”
Not surprisingly, engagement revealed that HFHN staff were exhausted by the challenges of providing affordable housing in this market. As a result, the new strategic plan now includes a board-approved commitment to supporting them better.
Putting it all together
Laridae’s process also offered a guided look back to see what had been done successfully in the past.
As Macdonald and HFHN’s Board Chair were presenting the draft plan to the rest of the board it came to light that much of what was proposed in the new plan was activity already underway. And that was a good thing.
“It was important validation for us. It proved to us that we know what’s right for our organization. We had already started on a path the research was telling us to take,” said Macdonald.
Realizing that they were already doing important work, and that stakeholders valued and agreed with this work, was the most meaningful part of the process for Macdonald.
“A new strategic plan doesn’t mean taking everything you’re currently working on and putting a big X through it. A new plan doesn’t mean doing everything differently,” said Macdonald. “In our case, by writing it down in our plan, we’ve given ourselves permission to continue doing what we already knew was right.”
“It’s tempting to throw everything out,” cautioned Macdonald. “To give into the mindset of, “Hey, we’re brainstorming – the sky’s the limit!” It’s tempting to drop what you do well for the new.”
More than just a document
With new understanding and new relationships formed through the process, presenting the draft plan to the board was a remarkably easy step for Macdonald.
“After sending the first draft off to the board, I shared it with staff and got really positive feedback,” said Macdonald. “Knowing I had support from the team really lifted me up.”
The draft plan generated valuable discussion that proved there was consensus throughout the organization on the planned direction. It took just three weeks from first draft to final board approval.
A strategic plan is about so much more that the final document. Its success relies upon the work that goes into the journey. The experience can be eye-opening, challenging or, in HFHN’s case, validating.
Committing to a strategic planning process may feel daunting, but done well, it has the power to align organizations, galvanize opinion, improve morale, and set a future direction that is grounded in evidence.
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