In working with several exceptional nonprofits over the past few months, I see the power and value of disrupting the traditional, board-led strategic planning model in favor of a process that encourages staff leadership and engagement early on at all levels of the organization.

By adopting a more democratized strategic planning process that makes space for staff, along with Board members, to inform and shape the plan’s direction, it’s easier to move more quickly to implementation. Staff recognize their voices in the plan and have more ownership around achieving the results. In the process, the board and staff develop new relationships and respect for one another.

This collaborative approach reduces the risks of traditional, top-down, strategic planning: that can (1) be too high-level to usefully inform operations or (2) inadvertently squash innovation and adaptiveness among staff as leaders put decisions on hold until there is clarity on the direction of the organization. The strategic planning process becomes an opportunity to model a collaborative organizational culture and encourage creativity through the development of shared goals.

Achieving strong results through this interactive model requires participation of staff throughout the process, a willingness of the board to give up some control, and staff members’ trust—or ability to get over skepticism on the value of planning—in the process.

With one nonprofit client, Piedmont Housing Alliance, our early survey and focus group work confirmed that staff and board members wanted to retain and update the goal areas from the previous plan. At the same time, staff were asking for a greater role in shaping the organization this time around. The Communitas team worked with Executive Director Sunshine Mathon and his leadership team to create ad hoc staff work groups for each strategic goal. Each group, chaired by a staff member and bringing together staff across all business lines, recommended actions for their goal through research and a series of three structured meetings (see template). A fourth work group, chaired by a board member, focused on organizational excellence.

The work group chairs presented their recommendations at a Board retreat including Board members and senior staff. Their approach was enthusiastically supported by the Board members — affirming the direction and adding new energy and urgency to the work for all members of the organization.

The core elements of an inclusive and interactive strategic planning approach are:

  1. Engaging all staff in the creative process from the beginning, and
  2. Using the process itself to model the kind of full-bodied participation and collaboration needed for organization culture change.

Leading a planning process like this requires flexible leaders who are not averse to risk. They take the initiative and time to simultaneously strengthen the cultures of their organizations while setting a bold new course for their work. It is rewarding and inspiring to be part of this change.

Saphira Baker

“The process of developing our strategic plan relied on a willingness to authentically listen not just to the vision from our Board, but to the day-to-day wisdom of staff on the ground. The direct connection to our mission-focused work by staff generated the critical framework that bridged between aspirations and outcomes.”

Sunshine Mathon
Executive Director,
Piedmont Housing Alliance,
Charlottesville, VA

Image of Strategic Planning Meeting Template

Cross-Functional Team Meeting Template for Staff and Board Strategic Planning Conversations [Click here or on image to download PDF document.]