If you volunteer for a nonprofit, and you should, you’ve probably been through a strategic planning process. This is where the organization sits down and draws up a plan for the next five years or so that directs where the organization is going and how it will achieve goals beyond the daily grind of doing the work. By “sits down”, I mean that often everyone sits and sits and sits and the plan eventually reflects whoever has the strongest bottom more than anything else. It needs to be done, but how many things in life as so literally a pain in the rear?
It doesn’t have to be that way, however. Cristy and I have been working with a number of small organizations to develop a system to craft a strategic plan in about 4 hours of good, hard think time. Small organizations, with little or no staff, have a more difficult time when it comes to strategic planning because the governing board often is the same people who do the work; getting them to stand back from it for a moment to see what the possibilities are can be very difficult. These “activist” organizations don’t have a natural separation between governing the organization over the long haul and getting things done. Governance, which is to say making things are running as effectively as possible, isn’t usually a top priority. That means that they often need a concise, realistic strategic plan even more than a larger organization if they’re going to get their work done in a fun and efficient way.
How do you get that Strong Half-Step Back in these nonprofits? What we do that is different is to start with the skills that the people bring to the organization. After all, that’s what it is all about. Any given nonprofit can do just about anything it wants, but if it stays close to what it’s good at and enjoys doing it will be more effective and fun. In this process, everyone fills out a simple questionnaire where they rank their important skills from 1-5, and they are added up. If you have 3 people rate their skill a “2” and 4 rate themselves a “3”, you can convert this into a simple bar graph that shows the net skills of the organization as a whole. It’s powerful stuff, because in a flash people can see what their particular group is good at.
After that, we do a standard “SWOT Survey”, or “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats”. The first two are about the organization itself, the last two about the world. I try to bring in information I have about the world that is presented before the meeting so that we can discuss things like funding climate and so on. This takes the skills profile of “Who we are” to a level of “What we do” and “What the world needs”, so we have all the information at hand to decide where this group can be effective. Then, naturally, we break for lunch and let it sit for a while.
When we come back, it’s best to have some organization to what the key issues appear to be, such as categories drawn from the issues raised in the SWOT survey. To meet the identified challenges and opportunities, it’s time to brainstorm up everything everyone ones, usually with a “floating pen” where everyone takes a crack at writing stuff down for the group. After that, we vote on the top priorities and take a look at what we have.
It’s usually amazing as to what a group will come up with through this process. Some expand their reach as wide as a Minnesota prairie, and some focus on major issues in the organization that need careful attention. But with everyone getting their say and everyone’s abilities noted, there’s rarely any doubt about who the organization is and what they can do. Sometimes a group will identify skills that they need pretty badly, which tells them who they have to go out and recruit.
What’s different about all this? It’s quick, it’s fun, and it’s relatively painless. Most importantly it’s all about people. Very few nonprofits actually enjoy strategic planning, and smaller ones usually enjoy it less. But this process, which begins with the people and encourages that Strong Half-Step Back, just to get a little perspective, works pretty well for activist organizations that have to do all the work themselves. It’s good to take some time and see what you might be missing and how you might hit it, but more it’s even more important to know just who you are.
With this in place, you can get back to doing whatever good work brought you to this group in the first place, knowing that you’re doing the best you can. That’s what really matters.
If you’d like to hear more, or even better hire us (ooh!) to help you with this kind of planning, please write to me as wabbitoid47 at yahoo.com. Thanks!