We all know that a strategic plan is so important for organizational growth and operations - but it can feel overwhelming and expensive.
In this episode, Ashley Whitworth, senior manager at BDO, teaches us how to run a strategic planning process in a small nonprofit organization. Learn about how to facilitate your process in a busy environment, how to get feedback from BOTH introverts and extroverts, and how to move your organization forward!
Get an organizational health check-up
Whether you do this from a stakeholder perspective or a mission perspective, strategic planning is something that needs to be done on a regular basis. What used to be done every three to five years is now happening even more frequently. Feel like carving out even half a day is impossible with all the things we have to do and hats to juggle? It can be tempting to postpone or rush through it - but this leaves room for countless mistakes!
If you don’t have a lot of time to work with, you can distribute the work in an easier, more manageable way. Try sending an email to folks asking for their “top three challenges or strikes” in your organization or spending 15 minutes simply talking to them individually. It’s important to allow them to speak candidly about any concerns or challenges they face and without fear of punishment. From the management side, it’s important to listen, write them down and ask for suggestions on how to move the organization forward in the right direction.
Phase one: (re)understanding the mission
The first step is to understand how your mission comes to life - which you might find that everyone has a different perspective on. Ask your team what they think the vision or core purpose is, and dig deep into why others may perceive it differently. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer, but it’s important to understand how others see your organization and whether or not that matches up with who your organization aspires to be.
Ashley recommends starting off broad and then narrowing ideas down to what can be accomplished realistically and ensures that you’re applying mission-aligned resources that will bring the most value to your organization. It’s also important to note that this process focuses on the end outcome or deliverable, but instead, it focuses on getting the team together to collaborate and get on the same page. This process is as important, if not more important than the actual deliverable.
If the team is able to come together, have a common understanding of where the organization is going and how you’re going to get there, then you know that your entire organization is working in the same direction, at the same pace - this is efficiency.
Phase two: encouraging staff participation
Have you had a discussion with your team and when it came to raising concerns, no one raised their voice? There are so many reasons why people don’t participate. But strategic plans should include everybody. Whether it’s to avoid saying or asking something silly, or because they’re worried about being punished, it’s crucial to set the tone and create a safe space.
It’s hard to have a conversation with someone one-on-one if you don’t feel welcomed or if they are judgemental - and your staff will agree. Make sure that you are doing your part to contribute to a positive workspace. If there is any chance that there is an “us vs. them” situation, elect someone who is perceived as being non-judgemental, and trusted by and welcoming of front-line workers. It is also helpful to find someone who works between management and team members or someone who isn’t from the organization at all.
If your staff is worried or anxious about raising concerns, try implementing a method that is safe, collaborative and objective. Ashley suggests using and distributing same-coloured 4x6 sticky notepads and thick pens or markers so their answers can be visible from afar. Ask your staff questions and have them write down their answers at the same time, and then collect them. Then ask the next question and repeat. By the time you go through all the answers for each question, there will be no way of identifying who said what. You can start off with positive questions (such as asking them to list a value they appreciate in the organization) and then head into feedback questions.
After doing this feedback process a couple of times, introverted people will become more open to sharing opinions. You can also count on this as a great way to evaluate whether or not their perception of the organization matches the mission and what needs to be worked on going forward. By allowing people to contribute and write things down without verbalizing it to the room, you provide anonymity for collecting feedback which encourages everyone (regardless of whether or not they are extroverted or introverted) to participate in the process.
Beware of the risks
Be aware of risks that can happen during this phase of the process such as an opportunity for people to place blame when discussing any issues or concerns. Try not to frame the first few questions around the organization and any issues or concerns. Instead, ask them positive questions about their values, the values of the organization and how they fit into the mission first. Then from there, ask the more hard-hitting questions.
Ashley also suggests role-playing with staff and envisioning them as a client. Ask them how they would view the organization from the outside looking in and what things are done exceptionally well. By doing so, you’ll find that there is a lot to unpack but helps steer the whole organization back on the right track and as a unified team.
Phase three: evaluating the findings
Now that you have all this information, it’s time to look for trends and understand what it all means and how it impacts your organization. When you’re uncovering all these emerging trends, you can now have the ability to narrow down your scope in terms of how to recognize and prioritize next steps. You can take a step back and look at exactly how much funding you have, what resources are available to you and the capacity the organization has to deliver. This keeps your organization focused on what is realistic and weed out what is not.
Instead of focusing on hundreds of things, you should be able to identify three or four big priorities to focus on. This also includes thinking about how to train or educate people around how this accomplishes the shared vision and how to do it well.
It’s also important to remember that these plans are not set in stone. By reevaluating and restrategizing on a consistent basis, you can adjust your plan to keep your organization steered on the right path. This process is not just like a template you fill in just to complete - otherwise, it becomes seen as a deliverable instead of understanding the end outcome you’re trying to achieve. Always be ready to change course if the route you’re taking is no longer headed towards fulfilling the mission.
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Resources from this Episode
The Good Partnership Guide
Watch Ashley's Strategic Planning recorded webinar
BDO Canada - Not-for-Profit
Jim Collins' Good to Great
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Cindy Wagman spent 15 years as an in-house fundraiser at organizations large and small before founding The Good Partnership – a boutique fundraising firm focused on small nonprofits. She has worked in social justice, health, arts, and education organizations. She has overseen and executed everything from annual campaigns to multi-million dollar gifts. She became a Certified Fundraising Executive in 2009 and received her MBA from Rotman at the University of Toronto in 2013.
With more than ten years of experience in development, staff and stakeholder management, strategic thinking, partnerships, board governance, and program development, Aine McGlynn is a diversely talented, self-starter committed to finding creative solutions in unexpected places. Aine holds a PhD from U of T and has a history of academic publishing, along with her decade of nonprofit sector experience. She is a practitioner-scholar focused on how to help nonprofits build their capacity to be successful at fundraising.