Yesterday, I led a strategic planning retreat for the Upper Valley Business & Education Partnership, a small Hanover, NH-based education nonprofit.
The work that the Executive Director Kathi and I have been doing in performance measurement in the last 9 months (6 months for me) have all been leading up to this culmination of our efforts.
We had started to make some headway into performance measurement, got ambushed when we tried to define metrics, made some startling discoveries about our model for social change, and then finally dedicated a retreat to creating robust statements for intended impact and theory of change.
This has been just the beginning of our journey to measuring outcomes, but we finally crossed an important threshold yesterday by hammering out practical models and statements that would help guide us in making strategic trade-offs and defining metrics. Before, we didn’t know where our end point was, let alone what the path we wanted to walk on looks like. Now, we have a better idea of where our end point is and know that our path is not going to lead us into a dark forest of beasts and danger.
In another post, at another time, I’ll list some of the resources I applied to the retreat that I think would be beneficial for any nonprofit or social enterprise to use.
In this post, I want to share the 4 lessons I learned (sometimes the hard way) about strategic planning so that anyone in the nonprofit sector can do it the right way. Here they are:
Less is more
This is by far the most important takeaway. Seriously. Focus on just 1 big ticket item at the retreat, 2 at most if really you have to, but never anything more. Get 1 big ticket item done and execute it phenomenally well rather than put 5 of them on the agenda to see them flop at the retreat.
The main reason is because during strategic planning, discussions and exercises often take longer and require greater energy than planned. Board members and staff rarely sit down together in the same room (and for a good reason), so their social dynamics might be awkward. They might need some time to adjust and get comfortable. Time in the beginning must be spent on getting everyone on the same page.
In strategic planning, there is just not enough time.
So if it is your first time facilitating strategic planning, remember that everything you are planning will likely take twice as much time in order to finish.
It is embarrassing to say this, but I first thought I could fit 4 big ticket items onto the agenda for our 4-hour strategic planning retreat. I was naive and unrealistic about what we could produce by the end of the retreat.
Kathi eventually talked some sense into me and I cut the agenda down into 2 big ticket items and even then, there were some points during the retreat where I was concerned if we could complete our agenda on time.
Be bold and provocative about the content you include in the agenda, but absolutely be realistic about the time constraints you deal with in order to deliver the best strategic planning outcomes you can.
Preparation is (almost) everything
I cannot stress this point enough. 90% of the fight when it comes to strategic planning is what work you put into it beforehand. Strategic planning itself should feel like autopilot compared to the weeks leading up to it.
In our case, we provided summaries of 2 relevant readings which were all 3 pages or shorter and a graphic to board members and staff (total of less than 10 minutes reading). Board members and staff are usually family people and have busy lives, so distilling the information they need to know for them helps maximize their time spent reading.
Afterwards, we sent out a survey that asked them to each answer 8 or so open-ended questions about intended impact and theory of change. We asked more questions about intended impact than theory of change because we knew we had to complete an intended impact statement before we could discuss theory of change at the retreat. These questions were tough but inviting.
Then, the morning of the retreat, I compiled the survey answers and analyzed the answers to come up with preliminary suggestions for how to think about intended impact. By using the answers to the survey, we were able to finish a lot of the work we intended to get done before the retreat even started. Without the survey, I firmly do not believe we would have finished both intended impact and theory of change statements at the retreat.
Leverage your preparation to maximize your retreat outcomes.
Get everyone on the same page
Your board members and staff come from all different backgrounds and levels of experience. Some are younger, and some are older. Some have spent more time in the workplace than others. Many of the times, everyone will come from different industries, which is great for maintaining a strong and healthy board, but makes it difficult to get everyone on the same page during strategic planning.
In order to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute to the discussion, invite them to voice their opinions before the retreat itself. We did this through a survey with open-ended questions that asked participants to lend their opinions.
Another way we got everyone on the same page was to do introductions and a review of the survey at the retreat.
Then, following a parliamentary procedure skill, keep tabs on who has spoke and who has not. For people who have not spoke, ask them for their opinion. Get them talking even if other board are more knowledgeable about the readings.
Ask, don’t tell
It was Dale Carnegie who said in How to Win Friends and Influence People that said that it is important to let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers. From working at UVBEP prior to the retreat, I learned that in communication, asking the right questions is almost always better than giving the right answers.
And in a facilitator role in strategic planning, it is downright essential to stay impartial and not give your opinion. That is not your job. Your job is to get everyone else’s opinions, distill them down to key points, and help them string together the key points to form coherent answers to the tough questions you are asking.
Ask questions that are challenging but open to get participants to think deeply about the answers. Invite participants to share their opinion. Ask the Executive Director you are working with to help you get the ball rolling.
Whatever you do, help facilitate discussion — not lead it.
And that concludes my list of tips for future and current nonprofit leaders. I wish you the best of luck in your strategic planning endeavors!