When You Do Not Understand the Strategic Planning Process, You Are Planning for Failure

Before beginning to plan for the future, it is critical to take a step back and review what the agency stands for and how it envisions its future role before planning for those years.

By Stephen G. Donshik

Several weeks ago I received a phone call from a colleague of mine who works for All for the Children (AFC), an agency focused on the treatment of abused and neglected children and their families. He told me that its director had recently initiated a strategic planning process for the organization. When making this announcement, the director acknowledged that in the agency’s more than thirty years of existence it had never made any attempt to plan for the development and future provision of its services to the community. Decisions seemed to be made from one month or year to the next. Neither the present director nor her predecessor had ever seriously considered engaging in a process to plan for the future.

My colleague went on to explain how the agency had engaged a consultant to work with the senior staff and some of the social workers who provided direct service to the children and their families. He explained how each of the service directors had been asked to begin working on a plan for the next three to five years. A series of workshops were planned for them to meet every other week for four to six months in which they could refine these plans for expanding services through their clinics and day centers. At the end of the process, the group would come together and see how their individual thinking and ideas complemented and supplemented each other. In parallel, the director of the AFC would be working with her administrative staff from the central office on a similar plan. After the groups would present their plans in both oral and written form, they would then work together on developing a master plan for the entire organization.

My colleague called me because he felt that something was missing from this process. He remembered a conversation we had had several years ago about the strategic planning process and he wanted to refresh his memory and see if his misgivings were correct. On the one hand, he was so excited that the director was open to engaging in the process because she tended to be an autocratic administrator who usually made every decision herself. On the other hand, he did not want the AFC to lose the opportunity to really make a difference in the way it developed and provided its services to the community, the children, and their families.

We had a discussion about how the strategic planning process is generally structured and who is usually involved from the very beginning. One of the first questions I asked was about the board’s involvement in a discussion about initiating and conducting the process. Of course, I also wanted to know if there was clarity about the board’s role and how it understood its responsibilities in developing and implementing the plan.

He was struck by the questions I was raising because in the first several staff meetings, the board or the role it would play in the planning process was not even mentioned. The director’s approach was to develop the plan and present it to the board for discussion and approval. She thought it would be more effective and efficient to handle it this way: It would be a better use of the board’s time to have its members consider a prepared document rather than to be involved in every aspect of the process.

Although I appreciated the director’s thinking about streamlining the strategic planning process, I was struck by how it would make for an unsuccessful process. One of the basic aspects of any planning process is developing buy-in and commitment from the volunteer leadership. This is so essential because most plans focusing on the future assume the need for additional financial resources for capital projects or expansion of services. It is difficult to ask the board to accept responsibility for raising additional funds if it is not involved and committed to the plans for the future of the agency.

I was also struck by the omission in the planning process of any discussion of the mission and vision of the AFC. It is extremely difficult to discuss a plan for an organization without reviewing the agency’s mission statement and its goals for its own development during the coming years. It was apparent to me that this was skipping an elementary step in the planning process. Before beginning to plan for the future, it is critical to take a step back and review what the agency stands for and how it envisions its future role before planning for those years.

The mission and vision are the guiding principles (or perhaps the organizing principles) around which the AFC’s path is developed. Without this discussion – which certainly needs to involve the board and other significant stakeholders (significant others in the community who are either involved with the AFC or committed to the client population it serves) – it would be difficult to see how the AFC’s plan could be taken seriously and implemented by those who would plan for its future reality.

Nonprofits like the AFC can sometimes run ahead of themselves and skip important steps in the planning process in the mistaken belief that they are being more effective. Yes, it is somewhat cumbersome to involve additional people in a planning process; it does take more time and considerable effort. However, it is well worth involving a larger, more committed group of people from the board, concerned community people, even representatives of those receiving the agency’s services, as well as the professional staff, in an authentic strategic planning process. Skipping important steps as discussed here can be a certain recipe for failure.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.