Over the past several years, our sector has been debating the design, relevancy and role of strategic planning as a core capacity building tool. Some say it is too time intensive and the final product too often ends up “sitting on a shelf.” Others deem planning to be a distraction from critical daily, operational and programmatic tasks.
In response to this conversation, several groups have weighed in. In 2008, LaPiana Associates proposed a more streamlined strategy process that it believes speaks to much of this critique. Vu Le’s NonprofitAF blog notes Real Time Strategic Planning as a tool to help the sector be prepared for navigating the current political climate. Other folks in the field have declared that strategy efforts should focus on building internal strategic awareness rather than focusing on external perspectives.
As a former capacity building consultant, I worked on dozens of strategic planning projects with a variety of timelines, scopes, and project components. While those with shorter time horizons (say six months to two years) addressed the challenge of the strategic plans staying relevant given a the ever-changing socio-economic and political environment, those that looked farther ahead were often connected to a more robust and inclusive process. My experience made me a believer in the power of strategic planning, and I am happy to report that many of our grantee partners have realized meaningful and actionable strategic planning processes through organizational effectiveness grants.
Strategic planning means different things to different people: the steps involved, the outcomes and the ending “product” come in multiple forms. Given its bad rap, I wanted to share one experience of strategic planning from one of our Children, Families and Communities grantee partners, Lotus Bloom. The organization’s experience shows that strategic planning is very much alive and has the potential to provide organizations with a roadmap for organizational success.
Here’s what Lotus Bloom did that contributed to its success:
1. Solid project components. In their process, Lotus Bloom had:
- Clear, shared goals for a strategic planning process and the final product
- Concise, agreed upon project timetable for plan completion
- Staff and board dedication to the process
- Trusted and engaged strategy experts to facilitate, guide and challenge the process
- Agreed upon mechanisms for capturing internal and external stakeholder perspectives
- Commitment to reviewing most recent-past strategic plan
- Respect for preserving and enhancing organizational culture
- Ability to look at organizational hardships as opportunities, and engage in difficult conversations to find innovative future pathways
2. Paying attention to the process details.
Each element of the process focused on capturing the vision and input of core stakeholders: staff, program participants and board members. Together and in separate sessions, staff and board reflected on past accomplishments, identified what Lotus Bloom called their Big Why, and discussed strengths to be mobilized to achieve a shared future vision. Lotus Bloom also identified barriers to the vision, and substantial actions to deal with underlying contradictions. Through this process, Lotus Bloom stakeholders were able to articulate specific actionable steps and create year-by-year strategic goals spanning a five-year period that culminated in achieving a collective vision for 2021.
During the reflective portion of Lotus Bloom’s process, the previous strategic plan was reviewed and specific achievements from this plan were elevated, acknowledged, and shared. This provided an opportunity to celebrate successes and build further excitement and energy around the strategic planning efforts. As the new plan began to be developed, Lotus Bloom used reflections from its past successes while honing in on the organization’s current state of affairs.
Key components of this process included:
- Looking at hardships as an opportunity;
- Envisioning where they wanted to be over the next few years;
- Identifying the roadblocks; and
- Looking at each roadblock as an opportunity to stop, analyze and make a plan on how to reach goals while navigating the roadblock
Another key ingredient in the process was consistently building and preserving Lotus Bloom’s culture while growing in capacity and infrastructure. Lotus Bloom’s strategic plan focused on spelling out specific areas of growth with concrete action steps, creating a timeline of success indicators broken down quarterly, bi-annually, annually and over the 5-year period. The plan also included the required tools, framework, documents, software, people, and resources required to achieve each step along the way. This approach speaks to the importance of an implementation component, particularly when committing to longer range (five-year) planning.
The Final Result
The result? A strategic plan that is integral to the life and development of Lotus Bloom. Through identifying the past, present, and future strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, the organization gained a realistic picture of where it come from, where it is now, and where it wants to go. The organization now also has a template and plan to use as a guiding post and grounding space when values, practices, and operations are in question. Most importantly, the plan provides steps and directions to achieve success.
Strategic plans can be prepared in many ways. They are not meant to be (and should never be) a “one size fits all” kind of process. Whatever your organization’s vision for success might be, consider that there most likely is a strategic planning process that can satisfy and serve your organization and its stakeholders. With consistent participation and buy-in across stakeholders, strategic planning and its final results have the potential to be embraced and maximized by those most committed to your organization’s mission and future sustainability.