People who aren't important for strategic planning

June 06, 2012

Posted in Strategic Planning.

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Let’s say you started out with a stakeholder analysis and named everyone who is a stakeholder in your organization: donors, staff, volunteers, board members, participants, funding agencies, government agencies, and so on. Then you decide to do interviews, surveys, or meetings with each of them to get their input.

I understand, certainly: you don’t want to exclude anyone because they might have a valid point. Or you might offend them by not involving them. Or you might miss a critical perspective. But is that right?

Let’s start with a few assumptions… strategic planning is good for a few things:

  1. Figuring out where you want to go
  2. Figuring out how to get there
  3. Getting people on the same page
  4. Helping to get people invested

There’s more, but this last one is the part I want to cover today. It’s the one that I’ve found particularly helpful lately and it’s one that can help with a problem we all struggle with: board members who aren’t engaged. If we use it well, it can be great. It can also take all the wind out of your sails.

How can it help get people invested?

The first step to getting someone invested is to give them a voice. In a recent round of strategic planning, I spent time interviewing donors and volunteers and asking them roughly the same questions. Some of their comments were surprising, and they seemed very glad to have the opportunity to get this stuff off their chest. Just listening can be a powerful tool for you. But it’s even more important that you act on it and follow up. Even if you can’t take every suggestion or respond to every issue, it’s critical that the person knows you heard and understand them.

Second, by involving them in the process you give them a chance to agree with what needs to be done and let them come along with you. I met with a donor prospect recently who agreed with the need for the project, but began to brainstorm alternate solutions that might be cheaper. He wasn’t part of our deliberations on how to get the project done, and we had discussed these approaches before. It was hard to defend why the more expensive solution would be better, especially when I was asking him to pay for it. Getting him involved earlier would have provided a chance to let him come to the same conclusion, rather than waiting until the end and treating him like a piggy bank (he doesn’t feel like that, but I’ve seen it happen).

Who you should include

Anyone who is already invested and engaged. These are people who are most likely to be informed and useful in the planning process. They’ll have the most constructive views to offer. And they’re probably your best donors, too.

People who have to live the plan. Your executive staff, board of directors, and other key employees who have the most to offer to the process, but will also be responsible for carrying out the plan itself. Don’t build a plan and then hand it to these people to execute – you want them to believe in it.

Prospects and key volunteers who you want to engage more than you have. If they’re on the bubble, bring them in by giving them a voice as described above.

An outside partner’s perspective. If you’re offering after-school programs, look for guidance from school corporations or community groups. This process can be useful for forging new relationships with partners, but more likely you’ll have better results from partners with whom you’ve built some trust.

Who isn’t important?

Let’s be honest with ourselves, even if it ruffles some feathers. Not everyone needs to be in this process, and certainly not in every meeting.

Board members who don’t care. Ideally, you’ll have 100% participation and every board member is fully engaged. But sometimes you pick your battles – and that means writing off a board member who isn’t going to come around. Don’t worry about them, except for how you can get them off the board and replace them with someone who has the potential to get involved.

Long-shot donor prospects. Strategic planning requires inside perspective and knowledge of your organization, or at least your area of service. A donor who doesn’t have a connection to you or the kind of work you do isn’t going to be useful to this process and it’s likely to waste their time. You can do more harm than good at this stage. Focus on getting an introduction or beginning to cultivate the relationship but leave strategic planning out of it.

Negative Nancy. A friend and former board member used to refer to himself as the “Black Cloud” because he was always the nay-sayer in the group. It was hard for him to find optimistic or even objective viewpoints about the organization. He recognized he wasn’t being terribly helpful to the process, and eventually left the organization. He’s a nice guy, but it isn’t a productive attitude to bring to strategic planning.

Everyone. If an idea, viewpoint, or perspective resides with just one person, it probably isn’t critical. Through the strategic planning process, you’ll listen a lot to individuals but you’ll end up building a plan that aggregates those thoughts into a cohesive voice. Don’t worry about collecting and representing every single idea.

How to successfully ignore everyone without ticking them off

Just because you’re not including everyone in the formal process doesn’t mean you won’t listen if they want to talk. If someone offers advice or says they want to be involved, give them the time. They’re indicating a level of engagement that you probably want to cultivate or, at least, indulge. If you don’t have time for a meeting, ask them to email you their thoughts so you can share them with the rest of the team. But don’t open the doors to your key planning meetings unless they meet your criteria as above.

In my first efforts at strategic planning, we made a list of over 100 individuals and organizations to reach out to. In the end, we were so paralyzed by the prospect of doing all that work and trying to work with the feedback we would get that we didn’t end up contacting any of them! Today, we go through the same process of identifying stakeholders, but we work harder to pare it down to a group who will give critical input and let us keep our momentum. After all, it’s a long journey.

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