An Essential Ingredient for Strategic Planning Success

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According to Socrates, an unexamined life is not worth living. According to nonprofit best practices, an unexamined mission is not worth planning (Hmmm…writing it in parallel makes that message too awkward.) What I mean is, a thorough examination of your mission, services, and structure is an essential element of a nonprofit strategic planning process. In fact, we think that taking time to take stock and learn about your work and how you are perceived is so important, that we won’t do a strategic planning project without it.

When I read “Secret Ingredient for Success” in the New York Times a few weeks ago, I took satisfaction in the awareness that this self-awareness isn’t just for nonprofits. The authors write: 

The successful people we spoke with — in business, entertainment, sports and the arts — all had similar responses when faced with obstacles: they subjected themselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompted reinvention of their goals and the methods by which they endeavored to achieve them.

Their article focuses on the success of David Cheng and his noodle bar Momofuku, and they posit that it is because he took “subjected himself to brutal self-assessment” (and not just because he has the culinary instincts to dream up cereal milk gelato) that his noodle bar became such a hit.

The authors (Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield) say that developing a successful plan involves “question[ing] every aspect of our approach, including our methodology, biases and deeply held assumptions.” In addition, we must “honestly challenge our beliefs and summon the courage to act on that information, which may lead to fresh ways of thinking about our lives and our goals.”

Greenlights believes this type of introspection and questioning is an essential ingredient of a strategic planning process. We begin our projects with other organizations with a phase called Taking Stock. In this phase, we conduct surveysinterviews, and focus groups with internal and external stakeholders to provide the nonprofit with up-to-date perspectives on their mission, services, and reputation.

By beginning with this phase, nonprofit board and staff leaders often learn new things about how they are perceivedidentify blind spots, and become clearer about their strengths. By considering these facets of their organization, we can frame the right questions for consideration during the strategic planning process and surface issues or topics that might have otherwise not been raised.

As part of a thorough process, you should aim to learn:

  • Are your mission and vision statements descriptive of all you are doing? Are they written in language relevant to your clients and the community? Are they outdated or in need of refinement?
  • How do your staff feel about their daily and annual work? What goes well and what challenges do they encounter both programmatically and operationally?
  • Are there gaps in your client services? What do your clients and the community perceive about those gaps?
  • How informed about your work do your funders feel? Are you communicating with them in the way(s) that they like best?

By reflecting on your mission, programs, operations, outreach, and other key elements–and asking for feedback internally and externally, you will be better prepared to begin your strategic planning process from a position of strength.


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