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5 tips for ensuring your strategic plan stays off the shelf

By Jen Pendleton, vice-president, Aly Sterling Philanthropy

Don’t worry, this isn’t another article about the strategic plan that sits on the proverbial shelf.

But it is an article about the BoardSource study, Leading With Intent 2017, that reports that “boards are not fully engaging in strategy.”

Let that statement sink in for a minute.

If you’re a board member or executive director, this is probably not surprising. The truth is, we’re all just trying to get through the day. Board member volunteers have busy lives and nonprofit leaders are living their missions and helping people. Strategic initiatives? Who has time for that in their day?

There is good news. About 84 percent of organizations participating in the BoardSource study reported they are taking time to write down strategic plans. Yay!   

However, that’s just the first step. Only 54 percent of the surveyed organizations said their boards are good at monitoring organizational impact against the strategic plan.

On top of that, only a quarter of these organizations have changed their meeting structures to focus on future initiatives versus operational issues.

So, what’s a nonprofit leader to do?

I’ll tell you what: Make it a priority to integrate your strategic priorities into your board culture.

Doing so will keep your goals top-of-mind for board members, ensuring everyone is working in the same direction.

And now is a great time to do it. With the beginning of 2020 and a new decade right around the corner, there is no better opportunity for a fresh start.

Here are a few tips to integrate your existing strategic priorities into your nonprofit board’s culture and permanently take it off the shelf.

Ensure your strategic plan has only 3-5 strategic initiatives and looks only 2-3 years into the future. We don’t want a multi-year to-do list; the plan must be focused on addressing key initiatives within a relevant time period. The days of a 5- or 10-year strategic plan are gone because the world and nonprofit sector are moving much too fast.

Once strategic initiatives are in place, reframe your board meeting agendas to include discussion about these initiatives. Change the culture to be forward thinking around these priorities. 

Find other ways for the board to approve and conduct regular business items by using a consent agenda. Distribute board materials early so there is ample time to review before the meeting.

Strategic plans are a great litmus test for saying “no.” Take time to discuss what your organization can STOP doing. What is your organization the best in the world at? Put your board’s focus there and around newly determined priorities. Research where there is overlap with other organizations and where you might be able to cut back, partner and really focus on what makes you special (vs. spreading your programs, dollars and staff thin).

Reframe your board committee structure around your strategic priorities. Don’t keep a committee just because it’s always been there. Committees serve at the pleasure of the board, so the board is responsible for assigning committees their annual priorities (related to the plan) and providing a process for reporting progress, needs and roadblocks.

If you have an up-to-date strategic plan, engaging your board in the process of operationalizing it doesn’t have to be hard. All it takes is making changes that integrate key processes and initiatives into board culture.  

You don’t need a new plan, you just need to rethink culture and systems. Then you can get rid of that proverbial bookshelf.

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