Jeanne Tedrow, President & CEO, North Carolina Center for Nonprofits
Strategic planning is a dynamic process. With great intent, many organizations spend a fair amount of time and money to complete a strategic plan on where they are or should be going next. After a successful engagement with board and staff, and sometimes with a paid consultant, the organization sees the completed document as the achievement. Unfortunately, it is often a one-and-done deal and then sits on the shelf, with the organization able to check the box that this has been finished. Yet, it has only just begun.
Once the deep dive planning into the organization’s mission is underway, we typically ask: Are we still relevant? Is what we offer still valued? How do we know when we are successful? These are all very important questions, as is the process of revisiting our missions, setting goals, and determining the ways and means to achieve them. The strategic planning process with the document in-hand is only the first stage. The next stage is implementation, and this is where the action is, literally!
The dictionary defines strategic planning as: A systematic process of envisioning a desired future and translating this vision into broadly defined goals or objectives and a sequence of steps to achieve them. Strategic planning begins with the “end in mind.”
The strategic planning process gives the organization the opportunity to look at all aspects of its operations, where it has been, where it is going. It engages staff and board in critical thinking and planning. The process encourages staff and board to ask questions about succession planning: Do we have a short-term emergency plan to replace the chief executive in the case of any surprises? Do we have the forethought to build our bench in the event of a planned or unplanned change in senior leadership? Does the organization have a sustainability strategy or business model that they follow?
While implementing the strategic plan is everyone’s responsibility across the board and staff, it must be owned by the executive director/CEO. He/she needs to hold staff members accountable for checking in on the plan and setting goals and objectives to be achieved within realistic time frames. The CEO keeps the vision clear as the formal planning process winnows and the implementation phase ramps up. It is my experience that the implementation steps are not linear – it is not a straight line from strategic plan into next steps. Rather, it is an iterative process allowing staff to take some steps forward, assess the change and its impact, and take more steps – always acting, reviewing, assessing, and taking realigning next steps.
During implementation, it is important for each team member to know what is “theirs” and to be held accountable for their piece with actions that support them. In most organizations, it also requires communication across teams and departments. Team members need to be open to how their work or actions impact that of other teams and departments. Implementation should create a feedback loop that allows team members to check in with each other.
While there may be an ambitious set of goals and supporting tasks in the strategic plan, implementing all goals at once is unrealistic. Rather, setting some priorities on what will be achieved in the near-, mid-, and long term allows the organization to pace itself. Tracking progress at each stage along the way enables the organization to celebrate successes and gauge areas that may need more attention. Amid implementation, there may be changes in the organization’s operations, programming, communications, financial management, staffing, and the overall business model. And staff members must still attend to their daily tasks and manage their workloads aside from what is directly related to the strategic plan. While it is important to remain focused and hold each other accountable, it is also important to recognize that change can be slow, that individuals on the team have differing capabilities and paces for change. Patience, affirmations, and support helps strengthen the process.
Ready to dive into or revisit your strategic plan? Review organizational benchmarks in Principles & Practices: Best Practices for North Carolina Nonprofits and get strategies, templates, and tools in Information Central.