What Gets a Board to Support Strategic Planning?

A new study suggests that strategic planning remains a struggle for boards. A clearer picture of life without a strategic plan may help.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated. The original version misstated two data points from the Concord Leadership Group study.

We don’t seem to be getting much better, as organizations, at strategic thinking.

That’s one of the main takeaways from the Concord Leadership Group’s “Nonprofit Sector Leadership Report,” a study by the nonprofit consultancy of more than 1,000 CEOs, board members, and other leaders. Some of the results echo familiar points: Nonprofits are weak at succession planning, for instance (77 percent don’t have a succession plan), as well as CEO evaluation (61 percent of boards don’t do it annually).

It’s not surprising, either, to see that so many organizations are weak at strategic planning as well. According to the survey, 29 percent reported not having a strategic plan, and 19 percent of those that said they do have a plan said it’s not written down.

Which must make those quarterly board-meeting prep sessions rife with intrigue.

“Problems are best expressed as real threats rather than specific solutions.

But one thing the survey does a good job of highlighting—in a way that isn’t often done—is finding the correlations between strategic planning and other measures of success for an organization. Those with a written strategic plan were:

  • More likely to collaborate with other nonprofits (83 vs. 76 percent)
  • More likely to have boards “open to taking calculated risks” (65 vs. 51 percent)
  • More likely to evaluate its CEO annually (36 vs. 21 percent)
  • More likely to have a process for measuring leadership effectiveness (75 vs. 50 percent)

It seems almost commonsensical, then, to put in the time to put together a strategic plan. So why do we resist it?

Partly, to put it simply, because it’s hard. “Many board members, at least in my experience, in their day jobs they’re not necessarily used to being in roles that require them to think or act or work strategically,” Jolene Knapp, CAE, told me in January. And many boards, uncomfortable with the rigorous process of environmental scanning and self-contemplation that goes into a useful strategic plan, wind up with ones that mostly ratify what they’re already doing (or not doing). So much so that I proposed killing the term “strategic plan” and replacing it with something that hinted more strongly at the forward-looking nature of the document. (I still like “futures committee” as a term for the task force charged with this work.)

The advice of the Concord Leadership Group survey is to boil down the strategic-planning process to four straightforward questions:

  1. What are we doing, and why are we doing it? This is effectively the mission statement, with a nod toward the changing environment in the industry.
  2. How are we going to get it done? This lays out the goals and objectives for the span of the strategic plan.
  3. How will we fund it? This can mean dues, nondues revenue, and donations. But as the study points out, this can also identify partners and collaborations that can support a nonprofit’s work.
  4. Who will we tell about it? That is, how will the goals be communicated to the staff who will implement it, the volunteer leaders who will hone and expand it, and the public who will support it? (The last particularly meaningful for associations that do government-relations work.)

Beth Gazley and Katha Kissman, authors of the book Transformational Governance, based on their research on association leaders, echo that rough outline, and point out some of the ways they can encourage boards to actually begin to do the work that goes into it. In many cases, highlighting the perils of doing nothing can do the trick. So can getting the board to look squarely at the problems it faces. “Problems are best expressed as real threats rather than specific solutions (which come later),” they write. “Some boards and CEOs in our study reported member dissatisfaction, apathetic board members, missed opportunities, and other real threats to their association’s future.”

Strategic planning is never going to be easy, if it’s done well. But clarifying the stakes of not doing it, talking through the benefits of the process, and making the process as painless as possible can help make that essential work happen.

What do you do to get your boards engaged in the strategic-planning process, and how do you make that process effective and meaningful? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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