It’s Your Plan, Not Ours: An Approach to Investing in Strategic Planning

By Aaron Saxe

With the new year approaching, many of us will both reflect on the year that was and think about what we hope to accomplish in the year, or years, to come. In other words, we will do some type of planning. At the Jim Joseph Foundation, one tool we use to support grantee-partners in this regard is investing in strategic and business planning, which we do within a relational-grantmaking approach that establishes and strengthens long-term relationships with grantee-partners to foster trust and open dialogue, build capacity, and help scale.

In 12 years of grantmaking, the Foundation has made 15 grants for strategic or business planning. While each organization conducts a planning process unique to its specific needs, common to each is that the grantee-partner, funder, and consultant each have an important role to play. Through our experience supporting strategic and business planning, we have learned some important lessons – what our role should be; what our role shouldn’t be; where we can add value; the context in which these processes are most likely to succeed – that we believe may be helpful to others as well.

Getting Started

From the earliest conversations, the Foundation stresses that the grantee-partner owns the process. It selects the consultant. It fully maps its strategic direction. It sets the multi-year budget. It owns the plan. Though it is the Foundation’s funding that enables the grantee-partner to hire a consultant, our voice is only one of many that warrants consideration. That said, our experience allows us to guide and support our grantee-partners along the often complex and time intensive journey.

In the early stages, this guidance and support can take many forms. As just a few examples, the Foundation:

  • Educates grantee-partners about which type of planning is right (strategic, business, etc.) for them and what the expected deliverables are of each
  • Helps grantee-partners develop their RFPs to share with potential consultants
  • Suggests potential consultants for the work based on specific needs and culture fit
  • Reviews proposals and provides feedback if the grantee-partner ask for that support

From there, the grantee-partner selects the right consultant for its organization and plan. A more recent pivot of the Foundation is to advise its grantee-partners to contract directly with the consultant (as opposed to through the Foundation, which was done in our early years). This further puts the grantee-partner in the driver’s seat, exactly where they belong. This hands-off approach comes as a surprise to some but it works because of the relationship building and trust that was developed well before the planning process began.

Stepping Back

As the work unfolds, the Foundation largely stays out of the way. The consultant leads the grantee-partner through the process with the Foundation staying engaged primarily when key decision-making meetings occur or when key deliverables are drafted. One may assume that the work eases up after the consultant is brought on board. In an article last year, Elie Kaunfer of Hadar cautioned against this thinking while also highlighting one of the benefits of the planning process. Elie noted:

…one of the most significant unintended outcomes of this process was the space it offered for some staff members to shine. Individuals who would not have normally stepped forward to play a role in organizational direction exhibited creativity, foresight, and, of course, strategic thinking. This is especially important because, as we learned, even with expert consultants, board and staff still have to do much of the heavy lifting.

This is indicative of something the Foundation has come to not just understand, but to appreciate: there are numerous positive influences and outcomes – sometimes unexpected – from a strategic planning process.

Importance of Engaging Funders

Of course, the most important outcome is the end result for the grantee-partner – a usable and fundable plan. It is critical for the grantee-partner to right-size the plan to realistic fundraising expectations. Designing a growth plan that is twice as expensive as funders are willing to support, for example, renders the plan useless. To assess potential interest, it is important to keep key funders and stakeholders engaged throughout the process by sharing updates and seeking feedback. The first time a prospective major funder learns about an organization’s new strategic direction should not be at the pitch meeting. We, too, are an important stakeholder in this regard. After all, funding the strategic planning process does not signal what we may, or may not, do to fund the plan itself. When appropriate, the Foundation looks to convene conversations with funder colleagues to solicit reactions and gauge potential interest in funding the plan. Being in dialogue with our peers, and at times, as a group in dialogue with the grantee-partner, strengthens the plan, aligns expectations, and sharpens our thinking. A best practice generally is for a funder to provide general operating support to maximize the flexibility for the nonprofit. “Buying” pieces of the plan can be problematic.

Concluding Thoughts

Supporting a grantee-partner through a strategic or business planning process at the right moment is a worthwhile investment when both parties are positioned for the project. A strong funder and grantee-partner relationship, open and ongoing communication throughout, clear understanding of what the roles are through the process, selecting the right consultant, and having a clear vision of the desired outcomes are what we have found set the project up for success.

Strategic planning of course does not occur overnight, is not always an “attention-grabbing” investment, and sometimes can reveal more challenges than solutions. But, the Foundation sees time and again that this investment, when made with a trusted grantee-partner who is positioned to undertake this endeavor, can chart a path forward that propels the organization to new heights.

Aaron Saxe is a Program Officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation.