Q:  I have been involved with nonprofits for a long time and I am seeing a trend that befuddles me. Boards seem to be too busy to engage in strategic planning, so the staff steps in and does it. In the cases with which I’m familiar, the staff does have the board review the plan at each step along the way, but it still sounds weird to me. I understand board members can be very busy and at least they are providing input. What are your thoughts?  Is this good, bad, or not ideal but a sign of the times – something I should just get used to?

 

A: I’ve seen this as well.And, while we’d probably agree that boards “should” be responsible for strategic planning, I’d say it’s definitely a sign of the times.

Let’s start by putting this in perspective. Strategic planning started gaining traction in the sector about 20 years ago. Boards set aside time to handle this responsibility newly deemed essential. The greatest emphasis was from the late ‘90s to around 2005. At that point people began to recognize the factors that limited its effectiveness. It was an expensive and time-consuming process to do “right.” Board members often didn’t want to spend the time or the money. Many didn’t have sufficient knowledge of the organization and its issues, so while ideas may have been freely bandied about, the ideas weren’t necessarily moving the organization closer toward its vision. More often then not the ideas were operational rather than strategic. Times were changing so fast it was impossible to look too far into the future. Sometimes the plan belonged more to the consultant brought in to facilitate the process than to the organization. Sometimes a funder required it, in which case expediency tended to trump effectiveness. Other times, while on target, the plan was obsolete by the time it was complete. Too many times it was put on a shelf. And all too soon the bloom was off the rose. Boards started to do less and less strategic planning.

Staff members, on the other hand, never stopped defining goals, strategies and tactics in order to keep the organization moving forward. They are very aware that they are evaluated on their accomplishments and that it’s difficult to reach goals if you don’t set any. The fact that they share these with the board is just plain smart. It highlights the work they are doing and protects their backsides. If it elicits the additional input you cite above, that is a bonus.

Given the nature of their work, though, plans developed by staff tend to be more operational than strategic. In my opinion, that is not sufficient. Without the continuous infusion of vision and the diversity of ideas a board can bring to the table, organizations can flounder and fail – especially in today’s rapidly changing environment.

To satisfy what you and I see as the board’s role, while recognizing today’s reality, I suggest your board focus less on “strategic planning” and more on “strategic and generative thinking,” which can be employed continuously with relatively little additional time, effort or cost. One way to do this is constantly ask “what” and “why” questions such as, “What should we be doing in order to reach our vision given this situation?” and “Why would/wouldn’t we want to do this at this time?”

Use BTW Talk or something similar to ensure that everyone is aware of the many potentially critical changes in the environment in which you are operating. I have mentioned BTW Talk in past columns. This requires providing a period of time at each meeting where directors can share what they’ve heard out in the community in the course of casual conversation (“Oh, by the way…”) that could impact the approaches you take moving forward. Bring into the boardroom people like clients and experts in your mission area who can provide vital perspectives. Do these individuals live too far away? Set up a videoconference – it’s easy and inexpensive today.

Encourage your co-directors to challenge the status quo. Use a tool like Jeanne Bell’s Dual Bottom Line Matrix to determine the level at which your current programs are still appropriate to your mission and bringing in resources. Explore the opportunities inherent in what some would claim as risky situations. Consider how can you make lemonade from the anticipated crop of lemons? Expect that multiple options be placed on the table whenever a decision is to be made. Compare these against previously defined indicators of success – including the degree to which the mission and vision will be advanced by each option and how well each option aligns with your values. Consider the ramifications of each choice – long and short-term. And look at the financial implications of each.

If you don’t already do so, try putting your mission, vision and values on each agenda. Post them around the boardroom and use a “mission caller” – someone tasked with asking the group how a comment or thread relates to your organization’s mission/vision/values – to remind everyone that this is what it’s all about and to pull everyone back when the conversation strays.

Build your agendas around your strategic intents rather than “old business” and “new business.” Spend the bulk of your meeting time in substantive discussion of these strategic intents. Record your decisions in action minutes and/or an accountability matrix. Don’t forget to assign due dates and the name(s) of those responsible for seeing each project through to fruition. Schedule specific dates to evaluate the progress being made. Note these on the relevant agendas so that the board is always abreast of where everything is at and the current relevance. Tweak the direction or strategies as necessary.

In this way, even though the board may no longer be writing a strategic plan, it will be doing strategic and generative work. And after all, what is really more important?