Good Governance: Making Strategic Planning (Relatively) Painless for a Small Organization

businessman considering curvy and straight paths
By Tanya Ishikawa

7 minutes

7 key ideas to consider

This article is reprinted with permission from the original on Blue Avocado, the practical and readable online magazine of Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group, for nonprofits. Subscribe free.

Strategic planning time! Do I hear groans or cheers?

In my experience sitting on boards and employed as a nonprofit staff member, I typically hear some grumbling when the topic of strategic planning comes up. Volunteers (or very minimally paid directors) are usually not so excited about adding several more hours to their meeting obligations, especially when the process takes six hours (or several days). Yet, board participation to create goals, objectives and project plans is the key to ensuring your organization and its staff stay focused on community benefits with clear direction.

I recently helped lead the creation of a three-year strategic plan for the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership, a nonprofit with a mission of protecting and improving the watershed resources in our area of southwest Colorado. Here is how we accomplished our successful strategic planning process. I hope that you can find some useful ideas to help you get through your next process with as little pain—and as much gain—as possible.

Start Early

Begin discussing and organizing the strategic planning process six to nine months in advance of when your plan needs to be implemented. By starting early, you improve outcomes because you achieve the following:

  • Get board input before the process begins to set a good foundation for future work
  • Prepare board members for the time commitment
  • Jump-start their thinking about the plan
  • Spread out the process into smaller, more digestible chunks
  • Make time for robust community input
  • Allow for unexpected delays in completing the document

The UWP board first discussed the strategic planning process in February, revisited it in July, had our first planning session in August, and approved the plan in November. We planned it into our meeting schedule early, made more concrete plans just before we started stakeholder outreach, and then delved into the weeds in August. Because we chose to incorporate the process into a couple of extra-long board meetings and made some suggested changes that were received late in the process, we planned to stretch the process out to 10 months.

Support the Process

While the board president and officers may have the obligation to ensure that the organization’s goals and objectives are updated periodically, these volunteers typically commit to just a few hours a month. For the process to move along efficiently, consider taking these steps:

  1. The staff helps organize by providing documents, data and other assistance to support the board’s decision-making.
  2. The board also directs staff to gather materials, create spreadsheets and draft documents, based on the organization’s mission and programs.
  3. Then, the board can spend its time in deliberation about budget priorities and feasibility of programming.

UWP has three part-time contractors as staff: a scientific project coordinator, an event coordinator and me. The scientist and I collaborated on supporting the board through the process, each of us bringing our specific expertise and knowledge about different projects to the process.

Listen to Your Stakeholders

Involving the community in the strategic planning process presents opportunities for better outcomes and multiple public benefits. Going beyond the board and into the community for input about the strategic plan can achieve the following:

  • Enhance existing and potential partnerships
  • Increase stakeholder awareness about your nonprofit’s activities
  • Demonstrate that your organization is forward-thinking
  • Provide the chance to share strategic messages with your community
  • Communicate how much you value your community’s needs and ideas

Send surveys to your email subscribers and post survey links on your website and social media. It also helps to reserve time on the meeting agendas where you can share your need for community input on the strategic plan.

I collected feedback in person, through emails and by telephone, and shared it with the board at each strategic planning session. We were able to improve various relationships and the strategic plan itself based on several insightful comments and requests from volunteers and potential funders.

Plan for Multiple Discussions  

In addition to the preparatory conversations about the strategic planning process, two to four board meetings are necessary to complete a practical and visionary document. Board members need this time to do the following:

  • Become familiar with the organization’s mission, goals, objectives, current strategic plan and programming, and planned projects
  • Brainstorm ideas
  • Review how ideas fit with current operations
  • Refine decisions

Though the board discussion could be crammed into one or two days of meetings, spreading it out over several meetings gives staff time to follow up with more details and share outlines of the discussion. This helps the board members better visualize the plan as it takes shape and gives them time to get refreshed between meetings so there’s energy to fine-tune the plan rather than just approve something quickly to get a long day over with. Each meeting doesn’t have to be very long; you could start off with a three-hour session and follow it up with a two-hour session and then 20- to 30-minute agenda items at regular board meetings.

Use Organizational Documents as a Guide  

You don’t have to start from scratch with the vision statement and mission. In fact, those major guideposts for your nonprofit probably shouldn’t be reconsidered more than once every 10 or so years, unless your organization’s circumstances have changed dramatically. The following are two of the most valuable services the board can provide to the nonprofit and its staff:

  • Confirmation or adjustment of the organization’s goals and objectives to make sure they are still relevant and significant
  • Guidance on whether programming is accomplishing those goals effectively and what programming changes could be more effective

When we were incorporated in 2013, UWP developed a watershed plan analyzing water quality data and information about related watershed conditions. More scientific than policy-oriented, the plan is still very relevant today. By reviewing it and relating it to our projects, the board and staff have a clear understanding of what fits and what doesn’t fit in our strategic plan. Though your nonprofit may have a different focus like childcare or healthcare, it should have some major reports or founding documents that can guide you in your strategic planning.

Be Concise but Clear

From the beginning, the UWP board requested that the staff keep the strategic plan short. The original request was to keep it to two pages. They wanted it to be a fairly quick read—a document that would be easy to digest for any of its stakeholders who want to know what the organization is accomplishing.

At the same time, the board wanted to include an introduction to the plan and UWP’s mission and goals, plus the most important details about projects such as funding sources, budgets, timelines, partners and goals. They also decided it was important for planning purposes to indicate the priority of each project. Finally, they liked the helpful recommendation of one stakeholder and added clearer objectives for each project.

Though UWP’s document ended up being four pages, we feel it provides clear descriptions of our work to guide the staff as well as educate supporters. We formatted it in bullet-point lists and a spreadsheet to make it easier to read.

Don’t Be Afraid to Delay Final Approval  

You may plan to vote on strategic plan approval at a certain board meeting, but don’t be so tied to that date that you miss the opportunity to improve the plan. If you find that you need to get new information or wait for more feedback, you should be flexible enough to push back the approval to another meeting. Give your staff and stakeholders sufficient time to refine the final draft of the plan, so that you won’t have to amend it later.

Because we had started the process early, and still had a few months before the plan was to be implemented, we were able to take our time with revisions and approval. It made for a stress-free, collaborative undertaking—and a strategic plan of which we are all proud.

Tanya Ishikawa is a professional writer, editor, online content creator, video editor and producer, and event coordinator, based in Ridgway, Colorado. In addition to doing communications work for the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership, her current clients include the Ridgway Area Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Nursery & Greenhouse Association, Denver Urban Spectrum, and Shelter magazine. She earned a Bachelor of Science in communications from the University of Colorado-Boulder and has spent her career engaged in continuing education to broaden her skills and knowledge base. She has won numerous state and national awards for her articles, screenplays and videos. She has served on various boards from a public media nonprofit to homeowners’ associations and school organizations.

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