Consulting with Others and Developing Connections

Partners in Thinking: Consulting with Others and Developing Connections

Organizations often wonder about where they are heading when they determine strategic directions for policies, procedures, programs, and especially when they think about future plans. Sometimes they find themselves thinking about what the organization will look like 5-10 years down the road and who their constituents will be and who their clients will be. Often they engage a consultant and develop a strategic planning process, which provides an opportunity for them to simultaneously provide services to the community and focus on the longer term.

However, what should the organization do before it engages in a formal planning process? How does the organization develop a sense of what is on the minds of the people whose opinion they value and sees as their future stakeholders and perhaps, even their gatekeepers? This “think tank” process is somewhat different from a formal strategic planning process and can be looked at as a preliminary step prior to engaging in a formal and structured planning process.

An excellent idea is to invite a small number of people who represent a variety of groups within the community to discuss the organization’s purposes and services. It is important to reach out to people who may not be familiar with or involved in the agency but whose opinion would be of value. A representative group may include rabbis from a variety of streams (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Chabad and/or non-affiliated). It would also be wise to include others who are not involved in the formal Jewish community but have been committed to Jewish programs through creative and innovative programming (referred to as “social innovators” or “social entrepreneurs”). Often it is instrumental to invite wealthy people from the community who have not been involved in organizational efforts but who do share an ethnic, cultural, or religious affiliation with the organization or other like-minded organizations.

This kind of process can be initiated over an informal lunch or dinner and it can either take place in an attendee’s home or in an informal setting in another agency. It may be best to begin the process outside the physical plant of the actual organization no one feels any pressure to identify with the organization or experiences any reticence in making questioning or critical comments. It is important to encourage open and free discussion among the attendees and between them and the facilitator.

The sessions should be structured to allow a mixture of both presentations about the organization as well as open discussion focusing on the attendee’s awareness, knowledge, and/or experience with the organization and the clients/members it serves. Presentations need to be developed in an entertaining and engaging way so the information stimulates discussion and elicits honest and direct feedback. The focus should not be on evaluating the services presently provided by the organization; it should provide an opportunity for people to begin to think about the kind of agency and services they would like to see in their community.

It is best to plan for between four and six sessions and each one should be between 1½ – 2 hours in length and different venues should be utilized. The multiple sessions provide for continuity in the discussions and allow the participants to think about issues between meetings and develop their thinking in that time frame as a variety of topics are discussed. The length of the sessions provides for the development of a group process so the participants are able to listen and respond to each other. The role of the consultant/facilitator is to encourage the open sharing of thoughts and ideas about the organization and its role in the community in the past, present, and future.

The mixture represented by the participants and their formal and informal positions in the community and their different professional backgrounds, allows for a variety of perspectives by the people involved in the think tank process. If this is a pre-planning process then the diversity of views can actually open the discussion up and allow for creative thinking that might be precluded when the process is further along. It is precisely at this time that the “stakeholders” in the community can be brought into the process and be given the opportunity to share their thinking in a real and impactful way.

Involving people at this phase of an organization’s exploration about who it serves, what it does, and how it does it, can strengthen the present constituency and bring new people to the table as they are engaged in a meaningful process. When they see their participation and their ideas and thoughts are valued, they may be moved to contribute more time and increase the level of their commitment to the agency’s efforts to strengthen its role in the community. Of course the present board members and professional staff must to be open to hearing these new ideas, giving them credence, and then involving the people who are prepared to immerse themselves in a real way into the workings of the organization.

If the organization’s leadership is not serious about beginning a “think tank process”, hearing new ideas, involving new people, and finding a way to engage the community differently then they should not begin this process at all. In the same way the process opens a discussion leading to new ideas and new connections, if it is not implemented with the right intentions it will only alienate people and they will become even more distant than they might have been before. When the leaders are focused on broadening awareness and inviting others to deliberate with them, it will benefit the organization not only for the present but will plant the seeds for continuing growth into the future.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.