How to Get the Most out of your Strategic Planning Process

By Danielle Rocheleau, CEO

Having a solid strategic plan can do many things for your organization. It sets a clear path ahead and acts as road map for the future. A renewed vision can energize and re-engage staff, partners, and board members. It makes a statement. It identifies priorities and re-inspires commitment to the purpose of your organization.

At Laridae, we have led hundreds of non-profit organizations through their strategic plans. Naturally, we often help leaders understand the planning process itself. The outcome of that process matters too, of course. But in this post, I want to take you through one essential aspect that is often forgotten: planning to plan.

The importance of planning (to plan)

When organizations miss this initial step, it often results in conflict, misunderstandings, underwhelming results, or their final plan sitting on that proverbial shelf.

Consider this: planning without a plan is like going on a trip without a map. You’ve headed out on a journey, but the route is left to chance and might not meet your un-defined expectations (boring scenery, wrong travel companions.) Worse still, you end up disappointed that you didn’t get where you actually wanted to go.

How can this post help you?

This post is practical. It will to take you through what you need to know – and what you need ask – so you are prepared for a successful strategic planning process.

It will look at the four essential steps to prepare:

  1. Define the Purpose of Undertaking the Strategic Planning Process
  2. Determine Your Organizational Readiness
  3. Determine the Scope of the Plan
  4. Design the Planning Process

This post concludes by offering some potential next steps, including an organizational readiness self-assessment tool that you can download, as well an as invitation to get in touch. We would be happy to setup a free, no-obligation discovery call to discuss how you could achieve a truly transformational planning process. 

First: Define the Purpose of Undertaking the Strategic Planning Process

There are many reasons that organizations plan. Ultimately, boards and senior leaders are seeking to map out the path ahead by creating clarity and ensuring there is a vision for the future of the organization. A truly mission-guiding plan can do this. However, developing an understanding of your present circumstances and the purpose for starting a planning cycle, will better position the organization to take the next steps.

Reasons why you might be starting the strategic planning process

Some reasons to plan — and circumstances to consider — include:

  • It’s just that time: Your last plan is nearing its end and your organization needs to re-evaluate and refresh its strategic direction.
  • Change: Although we know change is inevitable, your organization has experienced a lot of it since the last plan. Board or staff turnover; significant shifts in funding or program offerings; structural adjustments; external environmental impacts like changes in demographics or community make-up; impacts to people and workplace culture; crisis and/or pandemics… must I say more?
  • Mission drift: In the non-profit environment, it can be easy to shift from the original purpose. While there is much merit in diversifying revenue sources, it should be done in service, not at the expense, of your purpose. If you’ve been through a planning process with me, or others at Laridae, you may have heard us refer to new funding opportunities as ‘a carrot’. When a new funding program becomes available, we can easily convince ourselves that ‘we can do it’, and therefore chase that carrot (one-time, year-end, project-based funding, anyone?) despite the broader impacts on alignment to vision, purpose, capacity to deliver, and net impacts on overall resources.
  • Adding something new: When a new opportunity presents itself and the stars align, organizations may choose to add something new. Whether it be a completely new service or program, a different revenue model such as fee-for-service, or a business strategy of exploring mergers and acquisitions, planning can lead to creating organizational clarity and understanding for this significant shift.
  • Shift in organizational capacity: Through the above-mentioned mission drift, organizations often experience very tight resources, such as lack of available time, people, and money to get it all done. For example, it’s true that non-profits have dedicated, passionate staff. It’s also true that those same staff are typically working very hard. I often joke (or half joke) that non-profit team members are working 2.5 jobs each or they run the ‘new program’ off the side of their desks. Although many wear this as a badge of honour, it is unsustainable. It impacts employee health and wellness, it impacts morale, and can be costly in sick time and staff turnover. A good plan can help re-align and rationalize the allocation of resources to create a focussed direction forward.
  • Enhancing engagement and morale: Whether it be with staff, board members, donors, volunteers, or community partners, planning is an opportunity to listen to everyone’s experiences with the organization and re-commit to those who make your work possible. They are each great assets and delivering a plan encourages early buy-in along the way, and that inspires alignment to the mission, will re-invigorate an organization.

In order to explore your purpose for planning, ask yourself the following questions.

Do we have a clear goal statement for this planning cycle?

If you’ve ever been in any of our training programs, you would have heard us emphasize the importance of ‘thinking time’ for organizational leaders. By this we mean ensuring you give yourself the time and space to map out what outcome you are hoping to achieve. When you are clear on this, then setting expectations for projects, services, and processes is easier. Then, subsequently, communicating those expectations to others also becomes much simpler. Planning to plan is the same.

Ultimately, we believe that a good planning process does not only set the path for the organization’s future. It also transforms the organization in the current moment.

The last thing anyone at Laridae wants, is for your plan to ‘sit on the shelf’. I would almost go as far as saying that it is one of our biggest fears.

We pride ourselves in delivering plans that resonate with stakeholders, are actionable, and that match strategy with capacity, perceptions, and ability to implement. Ultimately, we believe that a good planning process does not only set the path for the organization’s future. It also transforms the organization in the current moment.

Write down a clear, simple goal statement, with a measurable objective. For example, “That by September 2014, the Board of Directors will have engaged stakeholders in the process, and have approved, a multi-year strategic plan.”

Why are we planning now?

Depending on your organization’s circumstances, make sure you accurately frame up ‘why now’. This will help determine the outcome you seek to achieve. Planning during a period of significant change, such as a shift in senior leadership, in the midst of a capital project, or a pandemic, will require a shorter more focussed plan to increase organizational alignment and help with change management. On the other hand, planning at the beginning of a renewed funding agreement with a long-term contract will offer a certain stability for some longer-term, bigger picture thinking.

What are your goals for your plan’s legacy?

Of course, a written plan will be the outcome, but what else? What might be the lasting legacy of this planning process? More meaningful engagement, accountability, knowledge transfer? I like to think every planning process is an opportunity for organizational transformation, regardless of how big or small.

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Second: Determine Your Organizational Readiness

Answering the questions listed above will help you understand why you are planning. Next you need to gauge your organization’s readiness.

Exploring the following will help you understand where you might run into roadblocks along the way.

How ready is your Board of Directors?

Since the board of directors are ultimately accountable for the organization and setting its direction, it is important that they be deeply engaged, and accept their oversight role of the process.

  • Are your Board members willing to be actively involved?
  • What is their appetite for change?
  • Can your Board members and management team make decisions together?  If not, planning could be a significant challenge. If there is too much, or not enough, tension consider completing Board development training prior to planning.

Is your organization ready for honest reflection?

Consider whether the organization is ready and committed to looking objectively and gathering the needed information for well informed decision making.

This is a big one. Planning takes courage and honesty. Consider whether the organization is ready and committed to looking objectively and gathering the needed information for well informed decision making. Exploring aspects like organizational performance; effectiveness of current programs; current and future community needs; competitor and potential-collaborator options can be difficult.

  • Is there a willingness to question the status quo?
  • How about asking the hard questions, and facing difficult answers?
  • Is there an eagerness to support the organizational change that may arise from the planning process?

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Third: Determine the Scope of the Plan

Some questions that will influence how focussed, or how broad, the strategic plan will be, include:

Is your staff engaged?

When morale and trust is low, it becomes very challenging to generate excitement and positive change to drive the organization forward. Staff and volunteers are your greatest asset, and a healthy work environment will impact your ability to move ahead.

What is your operational capacity?

Some organizations have been in such a mode of change, that sometimes the operational capacity needs to catch up. Increased funder expectations, partner obligations, lack of adequate funding, staff turnover, new program opportunities are some common reasons for organizations’ being “spread too thin”.  When dreaming up the next 3- 5 years for your organization, considering your resources and capacity required to put your plan into action will help determine how practical or how bold your next plan can be.

How aligned are your stakeholders?

Senior leadership and the board may believe everyone (including staff, partners, funders, community) is ready for thinking, planning, and change, but in reality, there is often work to be done to get everyone aligned. This sometimes comes as a surprise for decision makers and it can be a let-down when they realize that there is work to be done, such as enhancing awareness, engagement, and building trust, just to bring everyone to the starting line.

How much time and resources can you commit?

Consider whether or not the organization can dedicate the right time and resources to ensuring an effective planning process that will drive the result you hope. This may include staff time for participation, engagement and project management; leadership and board time for informing and overseeing the process; funds for research or for third party facilitation.

How stable is your organization?

Each organization has varying levels of commitment from funders. Understanding how secure your funding is will determine how long or how short term you will be planning. For example, if funding is at risk shorter term, interim planning may be appropriate; on the other hand, with secured, long term funding bigger picture planning is preferable.

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Fourth: Design the Planning Process

Take the time to establish the parameters and scope that will engage the right people and information over the right amount of time to ensure a quality outcome. The following are elements to understand when designing your planning process.

Who is leading the process?

Different organizations have different views on who should lead a strategic planning process. I would suggest the determining factor is more circumstantial than anything. In most cases, the responsibility for non-profit strategic planning lies with the Board of Directors. They are ultimately accountable for the organization and setting direction. Think about it this way: the Board determines the destination, while the staff work diligently to map out the journey.

In the cases where the governance model is less structured, such as the Board acting only in an advisory capacity, or funders or host organizations act within the governance model, it makes sense to have senior management lead to development of the strategic plan.

Often organizations like the idea of establishing a Steering Committee… Although this seems to make sense in terms of cross representation for planning, it can cause concern when it comes time to making final decisions, since a Committees doesn’t hold the ‘power’ to make such decisions

Often organizations like the idea of establishing a Steering Committee that has representation from across the organization and with external stakeholders. Although this seems to make sense in terms of cross representation for planning, it can cause concern when it comes time to making final decisions, since a Committees doesn’t hold the ‘power’ to make such decisions.

In our experience, this approach often leads to duplicating efforts and limited Board buy-in when it comes time to make decisions resulting in more work and pushed timelines. In the case of choosing a Committee approach, I would strongly recommend that the Committee offer oversight to the stakeholder engagement phase and join the board in the kick-off and planning retreat phases of the process. This will streamline the process and ensure Board commitment to the final plan.

What is in scope?

Of course, the intent is to have a completed strategic plan at the end of the process, but what else should be included? It’s important to think about all the elements, as each need to be considered.

  • Operational Plan: For example, once the strategic plan is approved, does the senior team need help in with developing and implementing their first operational plan? If they routinely do annual planning, then probably not. If they are new to implementing strategic plans in an annual planning process, then perhaps they will require assistance.
  • Mission, Vision and Values: How about the mission, vision and values statements? Will there need to be deep reflection on these? In some cases, mission, vision, and values are close to perfect, or completed separately. While in others they need a full overhaul. 
  • Communications: Will a Strategic Planning communication launch plan be required?

What do we need to make decisions?

In terms of decision making, do we have the data we need to make business and programmatic decisions? If not, what do we need, and can we get access to it? Can we analyze it? If not, can we get someone to collect it for us?

How will you conduct stakeholder engagement?

Ideally, the process will include deep stakeholder engagement. This will allow decision makers to learn from a broad range of stakeholder experiences.  Offering opportunities through online surveys, interviews, and focus groups are some ways to enable meaningful dialogue. This process is very much about gathering information, but in our experience becomes a legacy of the planning. It helps to strengthen relationships, encourages early buy-in, and offers an opportunity to deepen trust with your staff, community partners, volunteers, and those you serve. 

What will make for a great planning retreat?

We often frame planning sessions up as “planning retreats.” In pre-COVID days, this typically was experienced as a full-day planning retreat with the board. With the changes in circumstances, we have split the retreat into two sessions and have seen very fruitful virtual planning.

At this point, it’s important to consider who will be at the planning retreat. The best planning tends to happen when you bring in the results from the engagement (opportunity for all stakeholders to weigh in), as well as all of the relevant pieces from an environmental review, performance-based data, and financial information, to a retreat with the Executive Director/CEO and the Board.

A well-thought-out process will offer opportunities for engaging all influential stakeholders along the way and the retreat milestone is purely for hard, intentional, and meaningful discussion that leads to decisions.

We have facilitated many sessions jointly with Steering Committees and with senior managers and staff. Although effective, and often we can guide groups to a great end result, these circumstances can create a more challenging environment for decision making. Naturally, by having senior managers and staff in the planning discussions, there are the inevitable points where they may feel defensive and push back against the board’s inclination, more out of feeling vulnerable and under-valued when discussing broad engagement feedback. This will take time, and often results in having to support managers after the fact. Of course, it makes sense—they live and breathe the details and get worried that the minutia of why decisions have been made are getting lost. My point here is that you should be very intentional about who you choose to include. If you are going to invite anyone beyond the Board and senior leadership, make sure you have a good reason to do so. A well-thought-out process will offer opportunities for engaging all influential stakeholders along the way and the retreat milestone is purely for hard, intentional, and meaningful discussion that leads to decisions.

A final caution for designing your process: many organizations like the idea of a “quick and dirty” plan. When determining whether you have a full process or simply a single facilitated meeting, consider that the result you will get from only one meeting. It might be better considered as a “brainstorming session” to identify key priorities, as opposed to believing it will produce robust results akin to a Strategic Plan that was months in the making.

What capacity do we have/need to complete our planning process?

Once you know what your parameters and scope for planning are, it’s time to consider what kind of capacity will make it a reality. Who do we need to help us, when and why? Who will coordinate the steps, who is responsible for communicating with relevant stakeholders along the way? Who will lead the engagement process and facilitate the meetings?

There are a couple of ways to get this done.

  • Do it yourself. You know the organization best and may appreciate the opportunity to save some financial resources. The potential roadblocks of this approach may be lack of time to commit to moving it forward, which may result in the process dragging on. Furthermore, consider the organization’s circumstances and influences. Are there any biases, internal politics, and resistance to change that may hinder a self-led process.
  • Hire a consultant. Bringing in a “fresh set of eyes” may be helpful in looking at it from an objective view. This approach, while it will cost more, will ensure capacity to move the project forward, have a third-party facilitating engagement in an open and honest manner, will draft the plan and ultimately bring professional expertise.
  • Hybrid approach. Exploring ways to work collaboratively between your organization and a third-party consultant. There may be ways to divide the work and proceed in a way that satisfies capacity both staffing and financial resources.

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What’s Next?

Download our “Strategic Planning Organizational Readiness Self-Assessment” Tool

This tool is designed for non-profit leaders who wish to take the time to reflect on these foundational questions and strategic issues before they begin a planning process, in order to improve the outcome.

You can download the tool here.

Get in touch with us

Planning your plan?

Get in touch and we can setup a free, no-obligation discovery call. We would love to work with you through a transformational planning process.