In conducting Grantwriting Readiness Workshops this fall, I gathered Assessment Data on a variety of issues from 70+ individuals throughout Northwest, North Central, and West Central Minnesota.  These individuals represented small, mid-size, and large organizations ranging from food shelves and senior nutrition programs to tribal health, grantwriting, and planning departments, a tribal homeless shelter, public health departments, a city, a watershed district, community action programs, and Soil & Water Conservation Districts. What was common to many of these organizations, whether nonprofit, tribal, or public agencies, was that only 50% (or fewer!) included their line staff, clients/constituents, community partners, and funders in their planning process.

The Strategic Planning Group on Linked In has been besieged with questions about strategic planning, how frequently it should be done, whether 3 or 5-year plans are advisable and useful in today’s swiftly changing world, and how to encourage organizations to follow through on their plan’s goals and action steps.  Strategic plans are very helpful for setting organizational direction and creating a plan that can be widely shared so that an organization’s key stakeholders know where it’s headed.  But perhaps the single most important reason to do it is to gather feedback from your stakeholders, especially clients/constituents, line staff, community partners, and funders.  This is a golden opportunity to review impact data and assess satisfaction with your services, partnerships, and funder relationships.  It can even provide opportunities for your major donors to give feedback on what they value most highly about your agency.  As a donor, have you ever had a CEO or Executive Director call you to ask your opinion on the organization and its direction and services?  No?  You’re not alone.  As a client or consumer of medical or other services, you’ve probably received a customer satisfaction survey.  But have you ever been asked to participate in the provider’s strategic planning process?  No?  Again, you’re not alone.  Requesting feedback during strategic planning is a simple way to engage your stakeholders…and let them know that their opinions matter to your organization.

Funders know that your line staff are the reason your clients return for services.  And, they also know that length of participation in services is closely tied to positive outcomes.  This is especially true in communities facing multi-generational poverty and historical trauma such as those we serve in Northwest, North Central, and West Central Minnesota. So, what does it say to funders if your line staff aren’t included in your strategic planning process?  More importantly, what does it say to your staff?  We need to think of our staff as stakeholders, too.  Even though we pay our staff, in mission-driven nonprofits, our staff are also stakeholders.  Treating them like stakeholders improves job satisfaction and morale.  Strategic planning processes that primarily involve executive and senior management and the board aren’t nearly as useful to your organization (nor as interesting to funders) as more widely inclusive processes.  While their voices are important, senior managers and your board are the people in your organization who already make most of the decisions.  Funders want to know that you are taking planning feedback from stakeholders seriously and that you have done all that is possible to include the voices of your clients/constituents, community partners, and others in your planning process.

Luckily, there are tools like Survey Monkey and focus groups that can be used on an almost free basis.  Most people are willing to complete short surveys.  Focus Group facilitation for your clients can sometimes be bartered or exchanged with one of your skilled community partners so that you use a neutral facilitator who doesn’t control client/consumer access to agency benefits and services.  At the staff level, you may want to invest in paid facilitation or use a Survey Monkey tool, which guarantees anonymity.  Regardless of the approach you choose, do include your agency’s stakeholders in your planning process.  It’s hard to course-correct if you’re missing essential stakeholder feedback. And, it’s an incredibly powerful argument to make to a funder when you can state that all stakeholders in your organization provided the feedback that led to the programmatic strategy or initiative you’re asking them to fund.

Do you have a question you’d like to ask but are feeling reluctant to use your limited funds for paid advice? Contact me at Becky@bemidjiconsulting.com with your question, and I’ll consider blogging about it if I can make a meaningful contribution. Or, if it’s a really super question, and other nonprofit and tribal colleagues can also benefit, I may develop a training to address it! Feel free to contact me, it’s free.