“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
“We always plan too much and always think too little.” – Joseph A. Schumpeter
“The reason that everybody likes planning is that nobody has to do anything.” – Jerry Brown
Few things in life twist my knickers like having to do things simply for the sake of doing them. The “because I said so” parent justification has roots far and wide in our society, and it drives me batty to this day when I – or anyone else – is expected or asked to sit down to keep a seat warm, hypothetically speaking. And when that “seat” is something that takes serious resources, energy, emotion, thought, time… I just have no patience for it. Especially when that something could spark a flame, or even a sea change. Strategic planning can be, unfortunately, a perfect example of doing something because we are expected to – because someone – board, staff, funders – “said so”.
I was struck by Jeanne Bell’s recent blog about the executive director’s role and attitude in strategic planning. She makes some excellent points about how the ED needs to have a strong voice and vision for the plan. She also underlines some of the issues surrounding this kind of work that greatly impacted how I approached our planning process.
Jeanne included a table near the end of her article that lists some “old executive” and potential “new executive” stances about strategic planning. Some of the “old” ones are just depressing: “I have to start a new strategic plan because my last one just expired.” “It doesn’t matter if the plan is particularly strategic or clarifying, we’re finally done and I have something to send to funders.”
Be honest: how many of you execs or staffers have heard these sentiments, or actually had these thoughts? In this age of new transparencies, of tough debates about business models, of foundations having conversations about supporting strong budget sheets rather than pennies on the dollar for program support, why aren’t we tearing this apart, too? Why aren’t there more conversations about the effectiveness and usefulness of strategic plans? I wonder: when a foundation asks for a strategic plan from an applicant, is it seen as a routine application attachment, or is it thoroughly explored to see if it is relevant and useful?
To that end, why don’t more foundations support strategic planning?
Here’s where I have to give huge props to the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, whose Organizational Effectiveness (OE) grantmaking is, in my mind, one of the most effective and useful funding programs in California. My wonderful Packard program officer once joked with me that the Cultural Council is a “Frequent OE shopper” and I said, “damn right”. Their OE program has allowed us to do incredible things that strengthened who we are and our ability to serve.
I started our strategic planning process with three unwavering ideas: I was not going to spend the better part of a year developing a document just because it’s something my funders required; I wanted a plan that, once finished, would not spend a day collecting dust on a shelf, because it would give us brilliant direction as we adapt to whatever the world throws our way; and finally, that if we were going to do this, the process would be priceless, and as relevant as the plan itself.
None of this work that we do in the nonprofit sector is worth it unless it is engaging for us personally and makes a huge difference to the people we serve. Sure, there are things we must do that maybe we don’t want to, from cleaning the employee toilet to speaking publicly about our causes to sometimes-unfriendly crowds. But that stuff is all a means to an end, and ye gods, a strategic plan should be something that inspires during the process, and keeps us focused and grounded when it is put into practice.
Organizations thinking about creating or renewing a strategic plan have a terrific opportunity to empower and engage the board and staff and to deepen relationships with their communities. Strategic planning processes can illuminate clear needs almost from the beginning, and help guide thinking and even decision-making long before the final version is done. (More on this in the next blog.) The process can be a way to identify supporters you didn’t know you had, to reawaken passion for your mission in folks who haven’t been involved in years, and to remind yourself why you love your job and the people with whom you work. Strategic planning should be a joy, not something you undertake just because you are expected to, and the result should help your organization spread its wings. Nothing less should do.