Ensuring a Planning Process Works

During the last several weeks I have been engaged by clients who want to initiate planning processes and in each case the question was asked, “How do we insure that the process works for our organization?” Of course this is a key question. Non-profit agencies wants to be sure when they invest in planning that there will be tangible results reflecting the process was worthwhile investment.

There are two important steps to beginning and implementing a planning process. The first step is to clarify the purpose of the planning process. Is there a need for a strategic plan for the agency; is it to create a new plan for financial resource development; is it to reorganize the professional staff; or is to reposition the organization in the community? The second step is to be very clear about how the process itself will be structured.

The planning process should strengthen the organization and not overburden either the volunteer leadership or the professional staff. A facilitator should be engaged, either from among the existing professional staff or an outside consultant, who will structure the process so the agency is not overwhelmed by additional responsibilities. When a non-profit organization decides to embark on a process like this there should be excitement and enthusiasm generated throughout the agency. If a person is not identified to shepherd the journey then there is a possibility of losing direction and sacrificing the “buy-in” of the leadership due to their frustration.

The facilitator guides the work of those involved and committed to assisting the organization in this process. The goal of producing a plan must be accomplished within a reasonable amount of time. The enthusiasm and investment of the agency’s lay leaders and staff members should not be lost in the process. There needs to be a framework, schedule, and/or agreed upon focus to keep everyone on track.

As the process unfolds a number of components need to be understood including: Who will be interviewed; the length of the interviews; which interviews will be conducted in groups and which ones will be one-on-one? The continual analysis and review of material that has been collected, and the striving to understand the future direction of the organization, should provide the impetus for the review of the process as it is taking place. Changes can be made in the planning process as greater clarity is gained about the content and how these issues need to be addressed.

In other words, the implementation of the planning process has to be thought out and monitored so the progress can be measured and evaluated. It is realistic to devote 6 – 8 months to the planning process and for the completion of a written document. The plan itself not only reflects the process but also prescribes the agency’s focus moving forward. In today’s world most plans should focus on the next 3 to 5 years at the very most. Change is occurring at such a rapid pace that is difficult to plan for more than 5 years and to expect certain things to unfold that supports the continued growth and possible expansion of services to the community.

Frequently organizations complete the process with a written document that articulates what the plan hopes to accomplish. This would be the case whether it was an overall strategic plan for the organization or was focused on one aspect e.g. financial resource development. There needs to be an additional section of the plan or a separate document that is a “work plan” or “plan for implementation.”

Once the document has the approval by the board of directors the facilitator can begin to implement the process. The work plan document states clearly and succinctly how the work will be accomplished. It should be an additional document, perhaps an “addendum” detailed statement addressing who will be responsible for the content areas and process of analyzing the data gathered and “translating” it into a form that the organization can use. It will also detail the time frame to be followed and how long it will take to realize the effort that the committee staff and board members have made to guarantee the organization is sustained in the future.

The importance of the work plan can be seen through the experience of a mid-size organization that wanted to begin a membership campaign from scratch. They were ready to initiate an advertising campaign focused on encouraging people to contribute NIS 180 annually to the agency. For joining they would become a “member and supporter” of the organization. From the very beginning they were ready to send out membership forms; advertise in the local newspaper; and approach a number people individually to support the agency.

They had not done their home work. They needed an additional step before they implemented this membership campaign. Based on my discussions with them they decide to implement a modest market research survey to determine what would work in the community. As a result of the survey they were able to determine that the “membership” concept would not work. They would be more effective by soliciting potential donors for contributions and to encourage them to join a “friends” group that would raise funds and use their influence to benefit the organization.

Even a rather simplified planning process can yield better results and be more effective and efficient than just jumping into action without knowing how the approach will be received. A planning process can realize positive results when it is thought out well and contains a work plan for implementation. The few extra steps will not only provide greater clarity but will also enable the agency to achieve greater results whether the focus is fundraising or providing services.

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.