Strategic Planning for a Nonprofit
Customizing the Format
Arundel Child Care Connections, a small nonprofit that provides continuing education, general support, and advocacy services to early childhood educators, contracted with me in Fall 2018 to facilitate a mission and vision revision, as well as guide them through the process of developing a strategic plan. Generally, strategic plans are broad, long-term, comprehensive plans that provide an organizational development roadmap for the next five to ten years. Given that this organization had never had a strategic plan, that they had just gone through a leadership transition, and that they were looking to address some organizational challenges, I suggested that they limit their planning to a year or two. With these kinds of factors, it was highly likely that new opportunities and information would emerge as they executed their plan that would require them to make significant revisions in a year or so.
Research for Success
Prior to the two 3-hour planning sessions with Staff and Board, I wanted to do some research to gather relevant and useful information from stakeholders. First, the Executive Director provided me with three early childcare education centers with whom ACCC regularly worked. I spent about an hour interviewing the director from each of the centers to get a sense of how their relationship with ACCC worked, what was useful and what could be improved, and also to gather ideas about new services that ACCC could offer to better serve their clients. Next, I conducted a 90-minute facilitated discussion with ACCC Staff and a separate session with the Board to collect information about successes, challenges, and opportunities.
I consolidated all of the information from the interviews, facilitated discussion sessions, and the ACCC document review I conducted prior to the mission and vision revision session into a document that analyzed internal and external strengths and challenges and made some recommendations about how the organization might want to begin addressing some of the challenges and taking advantages of opportunities. I distributed the analysis to the Staff and Board for review before the strategic planning sessions. In addition, I gave them a customized Human Systems Strategic Planning Worksheet, which they could choose to review and start before the sessions, and that would guide us in developing the plan.
First session: Putting the Mission and Vision to Work
During the first planning session, I guided the Board and Staff through the Human Systems Strategic Planning Worksheet. By the end of the 3-hour session, we had reached several important goals: 1) a common understanding of the new mission and vision; 2) identification of the target client; 3) stakeholder roles, stakeholder needs, and organizational needs; and 4) four strategic initiatives for the next year:
- Develop branding and marketing plan
- Research options to reduce reliance on grant funding
- Expanding reach through technology
- Ensuring staff has the tools they need
- Reaching parents
- Staff and Board development
We also developed operating principles, which are defined and agreed-upon philosophies, principles, and values that will ensure consistency, integrity, and sustainable effort across the organization and in interactions with clients and community members. ACCC operating principles include:
- Meeting individuals [and organizations] where they are
- Promotion of self-care
- Culture of collaboration
- Commitment to growth
- Empowering the profession
Second Session: Mapping a Practical Plan
The second strategic planning session was dedicated to nailing down details on how the plan would be executed over the next year. One of the biggest challenges in strategic planning – really, any big assessment – is the follow-through. Therefore, establishing which individuals will be accountable for certain goals, as well as how and when communication around the implementation of the strategic plan happens, is just as important as the strategic plan itself. I used a customized Strategic Plan Logic Model and Timeline Worksheet to guide Board and Staff to:
- Establish workgroups for each strategic initiative
- Break down initiatives into goals
- Determine what success looks like for each goal
- Establish point persons from each group for each goal
Once we completed these parts of the Logic Model and Timeline, I had the participants take the next hour of the session to meet with their workgroups to accomplish the following:
- Establish a meeting schedule for their workgroup for the next year
- Break goals into tasks and assign tasks to individuals
Finally, I introduced a customized Human Systems Committee Report Template, and encouraged the workgroups to use these to keep track of progress on their goals and maintain accountability for the group members.
In my experience, some participants can be highly resistant to establishing a meeting schedule for a year. I emphasize that getting meetings on their schedules will greatly increase the chances of success. Putting meetings on the calendar makes human inertia work for you – instead of expending effort to get a meeting on a calendar after everybody has dispersed, effort must be expended to change or cancel the meeting. In addition, establishing meeting times beforehand prioritizes the implementation of the strategic plan, both in people’s minds and in real time.
About eight months later, I followed up with the Executive Director to find out what the organization had accomplished since they completed their strategic plan. She told me that she appreciated the opportunities for the Staff and Board to spend time together and develop relationships with each other. Today, there is significantly more information exchange between Staff and Board; the first half of every Board meeting is dedicated to Board business, and the second half includes Staff. The Executive Director also said that the mission breakdown (see the Human Systems Strategic Planning Worksheet) was especially helpful because it got everybody on the same page about exactly what ACCC does, what they could be doing, and who they serve. The Staff have found the operational principles to be especially helpful – they use them almost every day, especially the one involving self-care. I was very excited to hear that the staff was taking good care of themselves, because burnout and turnover are the biggest waste of resources in any organization (but fully preventable), and is an especially big challenge in nonprofits and human resource organizations, where the client population is high-needs, and the resources are chronically limited.
As far as strategic goals, ACCC has accomplished a great deal:
- Completed revision of Personnel Handbook
- Completed revision of ACCC bylaws
- Researched and hired new company to assist in creating new technology infrastructure, including a new phone system
- Implemented new marketing and branding initiatives, including updates to website, Facebook page, revision of annual brochure, and conference giveaways
- Increased Staff participation in professional development opportunities
- Created and distributed application for new Board members
The Executive Director explained that the mission and vision revision and strategic planning process were incredibly helpful in determining ACCC’s direction and priorities, and that the results were well worth the money and time invested. Staff strengths about which she had been previously unaware have emerged and greatly contributed to organizational operations. Most useful overall were the operating principles, which they use every day, and the formation of the strategic planning workgroups. “Having a purpose behind every decision”, or the ability to link decisions directly to the mission and strategic plan ensures that ACCC can move forward with more confidence; and the relationship-building between the Staff and Board ensures increased organization-wide collaboration and communication on initiatives and goals.