Organic Strategic Planning

by Susan Valentine

I have come to realize that we often miss some of the benefits of strategic planning while we studiously focus on mission, vision, key stakeholders, key audiences, SWOT analyses, etc. In our quest to develop The Plan, we sometimes forget to consider the breadth of opportunities that pondering affords us. We neglect the organic nature of planning, the sowing of seeds. We actually sell the strategic part of planning short.

Ironically, when we are driven to dutifully map our pathways to the future, and to wrestling with what services and which programs, it is our “tickets” to these futures – our existing and potential donors and funding agencies – that need our strategic attention. Some of the most effective planning efforts I have been involved in have considered the simplest aspect of relationship building to great advantage: how can I use the strategic planning process itself to forge new and better connections?

By mapping who has the most power, influence, and/or interest in our work…and who might…a plan of action and extraordinary impact can be created and realized. And the best news about this approach is that we find ourselves speaking with existing and potential funders about everything but money!

We all know people love to be asked their opinions. We also know that people of means actually want to support efforts aligned with their own interests, want to give money. So, capitalizing on both of these -- one directly and the other between the lines -- in meetings focused on the strategic planning initiatives we are engaged in is a win-win.

Here are some sample “openers” for a few of the groups in this set of potential strategic partners:

  • For the already engaged significant donor: “Our staff and Board are beginning a strategic planning process. I would love the opportunity to speak with you about our work, some of our dreams, and to hear your views on the topic of __ (essence of nonprofit work). Would it be possible to meet with you in the next two weeks?”
  • For the not connected potential donor (after a little research about the individual): “I am the Exec Director of ____. I am not sure whether you know about our organization. As a part of a strategic planning effort we are beginning, I would love the chance to meet with you, to tell you a bit about what we do and hope to do, and to learn from you what your thoughts are about this work and its impact on our community. Possible to set up a meeting in the next few weeks?” Then, when with them, “do you know of others in the community who you think we should be sure to meet with during this planning effort?
  • For the potential funding agency (possibly a letter): “I am __, with ___. I have often thought about how to approach you to discuss our work and the programs you fund. I am not certain there is a good match, but a planning initiative we are undertaking prompts me to reach out to you and ask for some of your time. Would you be willing to meet with me for 30 minutes to discuss our mission and vision and possible linkages to your foundation?”

Each “touch,” no matter the result, means your organization is now known by somebody new or that someone already in the fold feels counted, respected. What is learned in the interaction helps us understand how we are perceived, if we are known, how to improve our communications, whether we have a new friend, how to proceed with this individual or organization, etc. We get new ideas, gain confidence in and can tinker with our approach/our story, and connect-the-dot between our organization and those who might help us forge our desired futures.

So, as the Executive leadership tills the external field and sows the seeds, the staff can be marshaled to focus on current state capacity and performance and to explore potential new directions. These strands of “plotting” and planning will dovetail in both unexpected and intentional ways along the path to creation of The Plan.

The Bottom Line: In the press and urgency of strategic planning, pause long enough to consider ways to use the initiative itself as a means to an end. Educate, market, build new relationships even before the Plan itself exists. Once it does exist, another opportunity for returning to “new friends” to share the process result – which involved their input – presents itself and continues the organic nature of sowing seeds strategically.

Susan Valentine is an individual and organizational change consultant specializing in organizational assessment, strategic planning, change management, and life planning. She has served as an executive in leading research and assessment and nonprofit community development organizations and as a Board member of local community and educational agencies.

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