The P Word: Process

By: Bess Langbein

When I first started as the executive director of a fledgling community foundation, I dreaded the idea of a strategic planning process. The word “process” sounded like a lot of time and money.  Our small team was already stretched thinly, and financially, we were operating on barely more than a month-to-month budget. 

When done well, with thoughtfulness and intention, a strategic planning process takes time and hard work, and cannot be done cheaply. 

It wasn’t until Lauren and I formed Due East Partners that I learned that the power is in the process. The very thing that can feel like it’s taking you away from your mission is the thing that sustains it and allows it to grow.  

Here’s what I mean: One of the key ingredients for sustained strategic growth is an engaged and diverse constituency (individuals and organizations who care about your mission or are likely to) who understand what you’re doing, why, and what you’re aiming for.  Without them, you’re likely trying to move mountains one stone at a time. A strategic planning process is a powerful touchpoint to engage those leaders and groups in your work and vision for the future.

Of course, many organizations are uneasy about having their funders, partners, or clients “look under the hood,” so to speak. We have faced discomfort from clients concerned about coming across as less than perfect. The truth is, there are no perfect nonprofits. Funders know this. Board members know this. And more importantly, strategic planning is not about exposing weakness; it’s about identifying opportunities.

We know from experience that the more you open up your strategic planning process, the better the end result (the plan). If you want your plan to be authentic, meaningful, and truly owned by your organization and its key stakeholders, you must engage them in the process.

The process is truly where the magic happens.

With Due East’s strategic planning approach, our clients can plan and implement simultaneously. The process itself can model the type of organization you want to be. 

One of our clients, The Wilderness Society, struggled with cross-departmental collaboration. Like many busy organizations, their teams tended to work in silos more than they would have liked. Through the strategic planning process, we created a committee and staff workgroups that became the new model for long-term collaboration in the organization.

This kind of real-time pivot is what makes the process successful. The truth is, strategic planning is a mindset, not a deliverable.

Even if you can dream it and put it in writing (and get everyone to agree to it!), transformational change doesn’t happen all at once. Turning the ship is a series of dozens of 10-degree turns. Change comes from the daily, disciplined work of tracking whether or not strategies are working, making shifts, and being available for better strategies as they arise.  

In this way, strategic plans should be living, breathing documents. They should be supported by tools that bring them to life for staff and partners. 

One of our consultants, Sarah Lohnes, is the former CEO of a national education nonprofit. Sarah, like many, is a visual learner. She found it hard to “live” the strategic plan without seeing the big picture every day. So, the organization turned one big wall of the office into a giant whiteboard with a section for each strategic priority and metric of the plan.

Every two weeks, the full staff would meet at the board for a standing meeting with the eraser and markers in hand to update key actions and outcomes. In doing so, updates and feedback stayed focused and consistent. Each staff person had a role and equal airtime. And, the team loved the celebrations of incremental progress.

“We’d eagerly wait for the new number of conference registrations or grant proposals to be revealed,” Sarah said.  “Regularly celebrating those small wins, together, made it easier for all of us to stay focused and motivated.” 

Strategic plans come in all shapes and sizes. Three-year, five-year.  Transformative. Incremental. No matter which type of plan is the best fit for your organization, the power–and the payback–is in the process.

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