Invest in the most important step to your strategic planning success

Over the past 30 years, I’ve participated in strategic planning for my workplace, my volunteer passions, and occasionally for external organizations that were looking for broader community input into their own planning process. I’ve been impressed with a number of different facilitators, tools, and approaches.

But nonprofit work is challenging. Our clients needs are more complicated than ever…poverty, complex trauma, racism, mental health, addictions, and the growing divide in our country between rich and poor, which I think of as “the opportunity gap” as college becomes increasingly unaffordable. Bureaucracy, regulation, and reporting requirements are also increasing exponentially for organizations, which saps energy for both staff and board members. In this context, Strategic Planning sometimes beckons as “salvation” or can seem like an enormous chore on your already over-full plate.

Before making a decision to engage in planning, it’s extremely helpful for Executive Directors and Board Members, especially the Board Chair, to do some research. This research doesn’t start with finding your consultant, although that’s also important! Your research needs to start with your understanding about the purpose and process of strategic planning. This will help you decide what you want. If you’re going to invest a few thousand dollars (or more!) in an outside facilitator, food, meeting space, etc., it’s important to know what you want on the front end.

My #1 recommendation: Before you go to the effort to hire a consultant to help you with strategic planning, wait 30 days. During this time, give yourself permission to take 2 retreat days. These are like a day-long coffee date with yourself…off-site with no cell phone or email or human interruptions. You can bring your laptop…if you must…but leave email off…not minimized…off. (Hint: Don’t do this at your favorite coffee shop or lots of people you know will come over to chat.)

I’m recommending that you bring two books with you to your day-long coffee dates. Mission Control by Liana Downey and The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution by David LaPiana (FYI – LaPiana is about to release a new edition of his book in August 2018). These are the two of the most useful books I’ve read in a long time. You’re going to ask, “If I just have time for one, which one should I get?” Get both – it’s important to consider different perspectives. Each book has some similarities but also different areas of emphasis and different tools…you want to think about what will be most helpful for your organization.

Warning: This is going to annoy you. If you don’t have the time to take two days to retreat and review these books, you don’t have the time for strategic planning! Yep – strategic planning takes time. Check these books out on Amazon and choose a “like new” used copy. You’ll pay under $50 for both books. Your agency should pick up the tab…buy two copies – for you and your board chair.  This is much cheaper than the cost any other two-day training you’d attend.  (Note: I do not receive affiliate benefits of any kind from Amazon or either author, and I have no relationship to either author.)

Both books have highly useful exercises that your organization should consider undertaking as part of strategic planning. If you don’t make the time to do some of these exercises, you will be frustrated during your planning process…and will end up with the proverbial door-stop (a strategic plan that warms a shelf in your office but doesn’t actually make your clients lives better or help your staff and board work more strategically). These exercises can be consultant-led or internally led by a volunteer or staff member who has strong group process skills and the time to do some follow-up. Yes, novel idea here. Consider using your internal staff and volunteer resources for planning. Do note: Some organizations are able to do this process internally and some really appreciate using an outside facilitator. If you’re having challenges with your board and/or staff, consider using an outside facilitator. But…do your “process” research first and then decide which is the right fit for your organization.

You’ll realize a couple of things after you read these books: 1) you probably know many of the answers to your challenges…you just need to put the information together in the right way; 2) there are things you haven’t been doing that you probably need to do…reminding yourself of these things is one of the reasons for the retreat time; and 3) there are other strategies besides SWOT…although, in fairness, a good SWOT process uses some of the tools identified by Downey and LaPiana.

Get together with your Board Chair after you’ve both read the books and compare notes. See if you’re on the same page…or nearing a “thought merger” on the direction you think will be most helpful for your organization. Talk about whether there is someone internally within your agency who can lead the process. Ideally, this individual shouldn’t be the Executive Director or the Board Chair. If you don’t have an internal facilitator or don’t think that’s the best use of time, discuss and agree on a rough budget range for your planning. Ask a few other agency directors who have completed planning recently what they paid.

And, you might decide you don’t need a full blown strategic planning process. Maybe you just need to do a few of the exercises recommended by Downey and LaPiana. Or, maybe getting some outside problem-solving expertise is enough.

Regardless of whether or not you decide to move forward with planning, you’ll be better prepared to tell your consultant what you want. And, even if you decide you don’t actually need a full strategic planning process right away, your board chair will think you’re really smart! The conversations you have about the ideas in the books may also improve your working relationship with your chair by giving you a common language and helping develop some “common thinking” about what your organization needs.

Understandably, you may have an initial reaction of: I do NOT have time for these steps. This is a typical stress reaction to an overly full plate! After you get over feeling overwhelmed, I strongly believe you will feel more hopeful. And, in the busy-ness of our fast-paced world, we can all use a boost to our strategic thinking.

Happy Reading!

P.S. If you like the idea of a retreat date with yourself, consider doing it once a month. The next book I recommend is Good to Great by Jim Collins and his companion booklet on Good to Great for the Social Sector. I have re-read chapters many times and always pick up something new. Have a book to recommend that’s been helpful to your work? Share the title and author in a comment…and set a coffee date to re-read your favorite chapters.

Becky Schueller consults, coaches, and trains through her business, Rebecca Schueller Training & Consulting. She works with boards, managers, and staff in nonprofits, counties and cities, tribes, schools, and businesses. Contact Becky to schedule board development training, train your board or staff on basic goals and tools for strategic planning, or for other training or facilitation needs. Visit her webpage at www.bemidjiconsulting.com, follow her business Facebook page, or contact her at Becky@bemidjiconsulting.com to discuss your needs. Initial consultations are always free.

Before You Start Strategic Planning

Invest in the most important step to your strategic planning success

Over the past 30 years, I’ve participated in strategic planning for my workplace, my volunteer passions, and occasionally for external organizations that were looking for broader community input into their own planning process. I’ve been impressed with a number of different facilitators, tools, and approaches.

But nonprofit work is challenging. Our clients needs are more complicated…poverty, complex trauma, racism, mental health, addictions, and the growing divide in our country between rich and poor, which I think of as “the opportunity gap” as college becomes increasingly unaffordable. Bureaucracy, regulation, and reporting requirements are increasing for organizations, which saps energy for both staff and board members. In this context, Strategic Planning sometimes beckons as “salvation” or can seem like an enormous chore on your already over-full plate.

Before making a decision to engage in planning, it’s extremely helpful for Executive Directors and Board Members, especially the Board Chair, to do some research. This research doesn’t start with finding your consultant, although that’s also important! Your research needs to start with your understanding about the purpose and process of strategic planning. This will help you decide what you want. If you’re going to invest a few thousand dollars (or more!) in an outside facilitator, food, meeting space, etc., it’s important to know what you want on the front end.

My #1 recommendation: Before you go to the effort to hire a consultant to help you with strategic planning, wait 30 days. During this time, give yourself permission to take 2 retreat days. These are like a day-long coffee date with yourself…off-site with no cell phone or email or human interruptions. You can bring your laptop…if you must…but leave email off…not minimized…off. (Hint: Don’t do this at your favorite coffee shop or lots of people you know will come over to chat.)

I’m recommending that you bring two books with you to your day-long coffee dates. Mission Control by Liana Downey and The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution by David LaPiana (FYI – LaPiana is about to release a new edition of his book in August 2018). These are the two of the most useful books I’ve read in a long time. You’re going to ask, “If I just have time for one, which one should I get?” Get both – it’s important to consider different perspectives. Each book has some similarities but also different areas of emphasis and different tools…you want to think about what will be most helpful for your organization.

Warning: This is going to annoy you. If you don’t have the time to take two days to retreat and review these books, you don’t have the time for strategic planning! Yep – strategic planning takes time. Check these books out on Amazon and choose a “like new” used copy. You’ll pay under $50 for both books. Your agency should pick up the tab…buy two copies – for you and your board chair. (Note: I do not receive affiliate benefits of any kind from Amazon or either author, and I have no relationship to either author.)

Both books have highly useful exercises that your organization should consider undertaking as part of strategic planning. If you don’t make the time to do some of these exercises, you will be frustrated during your planning process…and will end up with the proverbial door-stop (a strategic plan that warms a shelf in your office but doesn’t actually make your clients lives better or help your staff and board work more strategically). These exercises can be consultant-led or internally led by a volunteer or staff member who has strong group process skills and the time to do some follow-up. Yes, novel idea here. Consider using your internal staff and volunteer resources for planning. Do note: Some organizations are able to do this process internally and some really appreciate using an outside facilitator. If you’re having challenges with your board and/or staff, consider using an outside facilitator. But…do your “process” research first and then decide which is the right fit for your organization.

You’ll realize a couple of things after you read these books: 1) you probably know many of the answers to your challenges…you just need to put the information together in the right way; 2) there are things you haven’t been doing that you probably need to do…reminding yourself of these things is one of the reasons for the retreat time; and 3) there are other strategies besides SWOT…although, in fairness, a good SWOT process uses some of the tools identified by Downey and LaPiana.

Get together with your Board Chair after you’ve both read the books and compare notes. See if you’re on the same page…or nearing a “thought merger” on the direction you think will be most helpful for your organization. Talk about whether there is someone internally within your agency who can lead the process. Ideally, this individual shouldn’t be the Executive Director or the Board Chair. If you don’t have an internal facilitator or don’t think that’s the best use of time, discuss and agree on a rough budget range for your planning. Ask a few other agency directors who have completed planning recently what they paid.

And, you might decide you don’t need a full blown strategic planning process. Maybe you just need to do a few of the exercises recommended by Downey and LaPiana. Or, maybe getting some outside problem-solving expertise is enough.

Regardless of whether or not you decide to move forward with planning, you’ll be better prepared to tell your consultant what you want. And, even if you decide you don’t actually need a full strategic planning process right away, your board chair will think you’re really smart! The conversations you have about the ideas in the books may also improve your working relationship with your chair by giving you a common language and helping develop some “common thinking” about what your organization needs.

Understandably, you may have an initial reaction of: “I do NOT have time for these steps!” This is a typical stress reaction to an overly full plate! After you get over feeling overwhelmed, I strongly believe you will feel more hopeful. And, in the busy-ness of our fast-paced world, we can all use a boost to our strategic thinking.

Happy Reading!

P.S. If you like the idea of a retreat date with yourself, consider doing it once a month. The next book I recommend is Good to Great by Jim Collins and his companion booklet on Good to Great for the Social Sector. I have re-read chapters many times and always pick up something new. Have a book to recommend that’s been helpful to your work? Share the title and author in a comment…and set a coffee date to re-read your favorite chapters.

Becky Schueller consults, coaches, and trains through her business, Rebecca Schueller Training & Consulting. She works with boards, managers, and staff in nonprofits, counties and cities, tribes, schools, and businesses. Contact Becky to schedule board development training, train your board or staff on basic goals and tools for strategic planning, or for other training or facilitation needs. Visit her webpage at www.bemidjiconsulting.com, follow her business Facebook page, or contact her at Becky@bemidjiconsulting.com to discuss your needs. Initial consultations are always free.