Public Works is thrilled to be sharing our approach to strategic planning this month on a panel at New York Nonprofit Media’s event, Nonprofit BoardCon. This event will bring together board members and senior leaders from New York City nonprofits to discuss strategies for collaboration. We plan to share our strategic planning methodology, particularly our strategy for making these plans visionary; inclusive of staff and board objectives; and an actionable roadmap for nonprofit leaders. Our process is grounded in two principles – we:

  1. Tailor our approach to align with our clients’ organizational culture and objectives, which helps create a plan that fits the client context.
  2. Collaborate closely with our client to lay a foundation when it comes time to challenge accepted norms and build buy in around change that will drive innovation.

Here’s a snapshot of our methodology:

Graphic, strategic planning blog

I. Organizational Assessment and Stakeholder Engagement Planning
We begin our strategic planning process with an assessment of the organization’s structure, program model, performance, funding schemes, and budget, which allows us to identify strengths, challenges, and opportunities. As part of the assessment, we map out internal and external stakeholders and an engagement plan to gather input iteratively from various levels along the way.

One of the most critical stakeholder groups is the board of directors. We’ve learned the importance of working with board members early and often to drive toward consensus around a vision for the future. We work with clients to quickly get up to speed on board roles, history, and decision-making protocol to determine the most effective intervals for productive board engagement. For instance, and quite often, we would establish three points of board engagement during the strategic planning process: the beginning (to lay out the vision, perhaps at a board retreat), middle (to share recommendations), and end (to present the final plan). We’ve also found that one-off board member engagement, in breakout groups or one-on-one conversations, can be beneficial for allowing stakeholders to share feedback on their unique areas of expertise, test the validity of our assumptions, or understand the areas where we’ll need their support (such as fundraising or making connections to potential partners).

II. Establishing the Vision, Setting Goals, and Measuring Progress
Following assessment and establishing stakeholder engagement, we move into developing a vision and setting goals that drive toward fulfilling our clients’ mission. We find it most effective to start this phase at a retreat or working session where we can dig into programmatic inputs, outputs, outcomes, and the ultimate impact desired at the program and organizational levels. We work forwards from inputs or backwards from the ultimate impact depending on what the client has already begun to define as core to its work ahead, or areas they wish to experiment with or expand upon. Ultimately, we shape goals with our clients that are attainable and align specific activities to achieve specific outcomes. We craft strategic plans to be dynamic, working documents that are relevant to staff’s everyday work and prevent the plan from becoming an unutilized document that gathers dust on a shelf.

Part and parcel with this, setting a goal will only take you so far: you have to be positioned to track progress toward reaching a goal and determine where improvements need to be made as you go. We work with our clients to develop key performance indicators to measure success in implementing the plan. We’ve learned the importance of making indicators that work concretely within the client’s organizational context, and can be connected to program or client data that’s already readily and regularly accessible for analysis. We also use this to setup a framework for our client to manage the implementation process through data-driven tracking.

III. Developing the Implementation Plan
Finally, we create an implementation plan that lays out the steps and decisions necessary to reach the activities and objectives set forth in the strategic plan. We empower clients to take immediate action on quick wins and early priorities, and phase efforts that require greater coordination or extended preparation over the longer term. We address budget and resource considerations, develop fundraising strategies, explore partnership opportunities, and make recommendations for organizational structure and board governance. We track these implementation steps to the established goals, and set timelines and activities that will allow for the successful implementation of the plan, while taking into account the organization’s ongoing demands and potential constraints. Without a clearly set path to implementation, and an approach to managing the various moving parts, we’ve seen many strategic plans become merely a coffee table book in the lobby rather than being executed to their full potential.

Developing a plan that’s relevant to staff in their everyday roles, incorporates iterative feedback from multiple levels of stakeholders, and helps executive staff measure progress will ensure that the plan is well implemented and that it helps the organization effectively work toward its mission. For a young organization, a strong strategic plan can be a concrete way to engage the board and to help define their roles. For mature organizations that have the benefit of experience, successes, and perhaps some failures, a clear process can help the staff and board prioritize and refocus energy and resources toward fulfilling the mission in a more efficient or innovative new way. Our focus on customization and collaboration allows us to design strategic plans that fit the unique needs and operations of our clients, and allow organizations to seamlessly transition from planning to action, and ultimately increasing impact.