Building Your Strategic Planning Dream Team
Your non-profit is about to launch a strategic planning process, and you’d like to assemble your strategic planning dream team. Who do you ask to serve on the committee or task force?
While I have my own thoughts (and I’ll get to those), I also asked respected community leaders who have served on many strategic planning committees who they would include. Here’s what they said:
Expand Beyond Your Board
Many organizations create strategic planning committees that include only board members and/or a few executive-level staff members. According to Ken Colling, retired CEO of Seattle Goodwill Industries, this is a mistake.
“Strategic planning is about perspective,” Colling explains. “You get the best perspective from talking to the people you want to serve and the people who serve them on a daily basis.”
Colling recommends gathering input from your non-profit’s customers by including some of them on the committee and/or gathering information through focus groups. Similarly, soliciting input from the front-line employees who work with your customers on a daily basis is critical. They know what those individuals want and need, and can help you become more effective in responding to those needs.
Jim Duncan, a board member who has led strategic planning for ArtsFund, the American Institute of Architects, and others, agrees. He suggests tapping a mix of donors and the beneficiaries the organization serves.
In addition, he also recommends including community leaders who aren’t currently involved in the organization. For example, as chair of ArtsFund’s strategic planning committee, he asked Norm Rice and other community leaders to join the discussion. Rice is a former Seattle mayor, retired CEO of the Seattle Foundation, and a distinguished practitioner-in-residence at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington.
He also brought in guest subject matter experts who gave the committee an idea of how the arts funding and cost environment were changing. These outside perspectives better equipped the committee to address the organization’s future.
Jim Ladd, who has served on more than a dozen boards and chaired many of them, says it’s important to have a cohesive group that works well together. However, this doesn’t mean they should all bring the same perspectives, skills or backgrounds to the table.
“It’s important to have at least one out-of-the-box thinker,” says Ladd. “You need someone who will bring creativity to the topics you discuss. At the same time, you also need stability.” You need people who will be the business voice of reason, and who understand the organization’s current state and situation well.
Carmen Aguiar, whose board service has included both corporate and non-profit boards, emphasizes the importance of bringing in at least one younger committee member. “Millennials, in particular, have a very different perspective on everything from communications to the future. Since they are our future, their perspective is very important!”
She illustrated this need with an example from a conversation she had with one organization. The table was surrounded by consultants and the organization’s staff, including a young receptionist who was about 20. As the team discussed social media, she caught the frustration in the young woman’s eyes.
“You know what we need to do, don’t you?,” she asked. The young woman replied, “I grew up with social media. If you’re trying to reach people like me, I can tell you how to get to them.” And she was correct.
Consider the Composition of the Group and Adjust
Lauren Thomas, CEO of Hopelink, tapped a respected leader in the community to chair her strategic planning committee. Next, she hand-picked individuals with strong strategic planning skills, including both people who know her organization well and people who don’t. Then, she assembled the group and asked them who they were missing.
The answer? “Techies and millennials. So, we identified people in those areas to join the committee.” The result, she said, is a robust and creative team that provides insight and thoughtful input into the planning process.
In my experience, organizations often skip the step Thomas highlights. They assemble a great group of board members and/or staff, but don’t consider adding in subject matter experts who can provide insight to the group as they discuss approach and explore major issues, problems or opportunities.
Of course, these subject matter experts don’t have to be on the committee or task force itself. Their expertise can be woven into the process by introducing them as speakers at a strategic planning retreat, or by incorporating their expertise into a thought topic discussion at a board meeting.
Look for Collaboration, Vision and Insight
When I first started facilitating strategic planning, I assumed that all participants would be able to set aside the present challenges in order to create a vision of the future. I was wrong.
In fact, it is difficult for most people to think far enough ahead of the organization to create a truly strategic plan. When assembling the strategic planning task force or committee, it is important to identify more than one leader who has the capability to envision future possibilities.
However, vision alone isn’t sufficient. The committee must also include people who understand the implications of that vision. These are the insightful analysts. They are the people who take someone else’s vision and plot it back to the current reality. It is important to find insightful minds who won’t shoot an idea down as a naysayer. Instead, look for people who are open to making new ideas reality.
Finally, you need collaborators. These are individuals who bring the team together, both during the planning process and after it is complete. They are generally excellent listeners who can bridge the gap between ideas, draw out common themes, and naturally facilitate communication between team members during the process. After the plan is complete, they often become the most powerful advocates for the plan, patiently explaining the promise of the vision to people who weren’t involved.
Consider an External Facilitator
Many organizations choose to use an outside facilitator for the strategic planning process. This has several advantages. It allows all participants to actively participate in the process. Consultants bring insight from their experience, helping ensure a stronger outcome. They can also address internal rifts that might otherwise by awkward to resolve.
Facilitators can facilitate the entire process, participating from planning through plan development. They can also facilitate a specific event, such as a retreat.
However, an external facilitator isn’t mandatory to the process. A board or staff member can be a good choice to lead strategic planning if the organization is running smoothly, the plan is anticipated to build on previous strategic planning processes, and the board or staff member has the skills and bandwidth to facilitate the process. Of course, many organizations don’t have a choice. If you can’t afford to pay a consultant, a carefully selected internal resource will work.
What Did I Miss?
Have you been involved on a strategic planning task force or committee that you thought was particularly effective? If so, please share what you think made it successful! I appreciate your comments and suggestions.
If your nonprofit is getting ready to launch a strategic planning process, check out these posts:
About the Author
Heather Fitzpatrick is a management consultant who focuses on helping organizations create thoughtful, strategic plans to achieve important goals. She facilitates strategic planning processes and retreats. She also provides marketing planning, financial planning and business planning expertise to a broad range of nonprofits. An active community volunteer, Heather has also served on 10 different boards of directors.