Nonprofit chief executive, your organization’s strategic plan is all about your needs.

Here’s how you get clear on what you need, and then get what you need, in 19 steps. You can and should delegate most of them.

It’s a lot of preparation to swallow. But it’s win-win all around because:

  • The preparation itself is so chock-full of win-win goodness that each bite won’t seem elephantine at all.
  • Getting clear on what you, the chief executive, need from strategic planning is the first step toward a planning process that serves everyone and (almost) guarantees productive and enjoyable planning retreats.

Clarity’s coming. Let’s go.

1. Get clear on what you, the chief executive, need.

Why are you planning? What will planning make possible? What does success look like?

The why statement should revolve around your needs as the chief executive. For example:

  • “I need a document the board can use to hold me accountable, that I can use to hold the leadership team accountable, and the leadership team can use to hold the line staff accountable.”
  • “I need four sexy initiatives to sell to funders.”
  • “I need perspective from smart, talented, passionate people to sharpen my strategic vision.”

2. Get aligned with your board chair.

Involve your board chair from the earliest stages to ensure her/his and the board’s highest levels of engagement and strategic thinking, and to avoid process choices the board won’t like. Double win: This makes a fantastic relationship-building exercise. See the board chair conversation starters in my book Better Together: The Companion Workbook for more on this.

3. Decide whom to involve in the strategy team.

It’s almost always the full board. Involving the leadership team as well can be a powerful way to build the organization’s team culture and to get additional return on intelligence: The value that comes from bringing diverse minds together in one room and facilitating conversations that create a collective intelligence that’s more than the sum of the parts.

4. Assess the prospective strategy team’s strategic thinking talents …

… so you know in advance who will take the 30,000-foot view and who will be down in the weeds. (Both views are valuable, when your executive coach or strategic planning consultant designs a process that accommodates both styles.)

5. Select a project champion.

The project champion is more than a project manager—she/he is the cheerleader as well. The champion is wildly enthusiastic about what great strategic planning can do for the organization and the mission, and inspires enthusiasm in others.

In nearly all cases, this person should be the Integrator to your Visionary, as in the book Rocket Fuel: The One Essential Combination That Will Get You More of What You Want from Your Business by Gino Wickman and Mark C. Winters. Or in other words, this should be your chief operating officer, your chief of staff, or your deputy director.

Nonprofit executives often select themselves by default when they don’t have an Integrator in place. But they do well to consider assigning instead a rising star in the organization for whom championing the planning effort is a huge—and free!—professional development opportunity.

There’s a succession planning win here, too: Say this person is your deputy and identified as your internal succession candidate. Imagine the opportunities for her/him to earn the board’s confidence by working with members directly on such a critical project!

6. Delegate most of the following steps to your project champion.

Be the change you want to see in the world. Delegate.

Look, under-developing leaders is endemic in our sector and it’s holding us back from creating the future we want for ourselves, our families, our friends, and our communities. Be the change you want to see in the world. Delegate and elevate.

In case you need a reminder:

Your ability to break through the ceiling also depends on your ability to delegate. … You’ll have to delegate some of your responsibilities and elevate your yourself to operate at your highest and best use. It’s not practical for you to remain chef, head waiter, and dishwasher as your [organization] grows.

(Source: Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman)

For yet more delegation inspiration, see how delegating her development dashboard didn’t doom nonprofit CEO Ines Polonius, but it sure drove up her blood pressure—and her step count: Delegation for Nonprofit Chief Executives: Here’s What Stops You.

7. Delegate catering decisions and a generous budget to the foodie(s) on your team.

Do not, I repeat, do not allow weak coffee to even cross the threshold of your retreat site.

Well-fed and highly caffeinated strategy team members are happy and productive members. Find the people who are passionate about food and drink and give them ample funds to purchase the same for the retreat. Do not, I repeat, do not allow weak coffee to even cross the threshold of your retreat site. (Hint: If you can see the bottom of your coffee mug when it’s full of “coffee,” you’re doing it wrong.)

You can tell from the gleam in her eye this woman is happily well-caffeinated. She’s about to impress you and everyone else in the room with her strategic thinking and contagious enthusiasm. Photo Credit: Unsplash via pixabay.

Now, if you’re having trouble letting go, here’s a way you can stay in control without appearing to hover: Surreptitiously buy and pack a 50-count box of Starbucks VIA® Ready Brew Italian Roast Coffee packs. That way if the coffee proves less than jet black, you can say, “I always carry these in case the coffee’s weak while I’m traveling,” and be the hero.

8. Bake in execution and accountability from the very start.

We’ve all seen plans that serve as dust bunny breeding grounds. (They replicate like … rabbits!) That why the statement from above puts execution and accountability front and center: “I need a document the board can use to hold me accountable, that I can use to hold the leadership team accountable, and the leadership team can use to hold the line staff accountable.”

For a step-by-step guide to execution (and, indeed, to running your entire organization), start with the Vision chapter of Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman. Wickman calls his system the Entrepreneurial Operating System, but you can make it your own Nonprofit Operating System by changing a surprisingly small number of things.

Wickman calls strategy “Vision” in his book, and says Traction—making measurable progress toward profit—comes from having the business owners and leadership team 100 percent aligned on the answers to these eight questions:

  1. What are your core values?
  2. What is your core focus?
  3. What is your 10-year target?
  4. What is your marketing strategy?
  5. What is your three-year picture?
  6. What is your one-year plan?
  7. What are your quarterly Rocks?
  8. What are your issues?

Well, to get nonprofit Traction—making measurable progress toward social change— all you need do is get yourself, your board of directors, and your leadership team aligned on:

  • Core values
  • Core focus
  • 10-year target
  • Three-year picture (though it’s debatable whether the board needs to get into that level of detail)

The rest need not involve your board:

  • Marketing strategy
  • One-year plan
  • Quarterly Rocks
  • Issues

(You really should listen to Traction. At double speed, of course.)

9. Identify board and staff members with planning pet peeves and work to accommodate them.

One of my board members dislikes planning so much, he won’t even buy green bananas.

People have had awful experiences with strategic planning. One or more of them is on your leadership team and/or board. To engage them and get a return on their intelligence, you’ll first need to make accommodations that give them reassurance this planning experience will be productive and enjoyable.

Here are some bananas. Now, every time you think of that board member who hates strategic planning, you’ll fondly recall nature’s most perfect cylindrical food. You’re welcome. (Humanity’s most perfect cylindrical food is, of course, QuikTrip’s Buffalo Chicken Roller.) Photo Credit: Unsplash via pixabay.

10. Select strategic questions for pre-retreat interviews.

The best planning processes get the strategic conversation started well in advance of the planning retreat itself. You do this by sending three to five powerful strategic questions to the strategy team and requesting/requiring they respond well in advance, ideally via telephone interviews with your executive coach or strategic planning consultant.

Here are few ideas to get you started:

Why are we planning?

  • What difference will strategic planning make for the people we serve?
  • Is there an opportunity or threat to which we must respond? If so, what is it? By when must we respond?
  • Imagine we could only answer one big strategic question at the upcoming planning retreat. What big strategic question must we answer at the planning retreat?

Meeting community needs

  • What does our community need from us?
  • What are we doing now to provide what our community needs?
  • What are we not doing now, but need to start doing, to provide what our community needs?

Business model

  • What do we need to change about whom we serve?
  • What do we need to change about how we serve them (with what programs/services)?
  • What do we need to change about what sources of funding we rely on to fund our work?

11. Compile the interview responses into a briefing document …

… and send the briefing document to the strategic planning team for their review, so people get a sense of the range of starting thoughts on the strategic questions.

12. Now, ask the interviewees: What two critical strategic questions must we answer at the retreat?

To add additional awesomeness (because all advocates adore alliteration), ask the strategic planning team to write their own one or two critical strategic questions that must be addressed at the planning retreat. (That way, you engage even more people in setting the agenda, which helps secure their buy-in.)

13. Select at most two of the questions whose answers you, personally, need:

This focuses the strategic planning team’s efforts. It does not waste their efforts, because your project champion is keeping a careful record of leftover critical strategic questions and preparing to slot them into the coming year’s strategic thinking calendar. (For more on this, see Bake Strategic Thinking into Every Nonprofit Board and Leadership Team Meeting.)

14. Design the planning retreat agenda to answer the two critical strategic questions.

The second most critical element (behind getting you the answers you need) is giving everyone a full and fair chance to participate. Process design experts nearly always accomplish this best by designing small-group discussions that then feed into large-group discussions. Say you’ve got a 16-member board; the people in four small groups are going to each get way more air time than they would competing for air time with 15 other people.

Here’s the small-groups argument in a picture:

15. Communicate the almost-final agenda.

Respond to questions, ideas, concerns, and make mid-course corrections, if necessary.

16. Set the retreat dates and location.

Wow, shouldn’t we have done this back at Step 1? Ideally, no. You want to know what you need to accomplish before you decide how long a retreat you’ll allocate to accomplish it, and what environment best lends itself to accomplishing those goals. (Hint: Sometimes it’s a retreat center, sometimes it’s at your client service site(s), and sometimes it’s a train. Yes, the kind with a locomotive.)

17. Work closely with a process expert to design the retreat.

If your executive coach is also a process expert, consider the win-win potential (and, frankly, the efficiency) in asking her/him to take on a coach/consultant hybrid role in designing and facilitating the retreat.

You’re asking your board members and leadership team to take one, two, or more days away from their jobs and families. And, as if that were not enough, you’re—you know—setting the strategy for your organization! Find someone who’s amiably anal-retentive about process design, and listen to her/him. Importantly, listen, don’t abdicate. You (with your project champion’s help) make the final decisions, because you know your board and leadership team best.

If your executive coach is also a process expert, consider the win-win potential (and, frankly, the efficiency) in asking her/him to take on a coach/consultant hybrid role in designing and facilitating the retreat.

18. Retreat!

Repeat your outcome statement at the beginning, middle, and end. I like this one a lot, which is why I’m repeating it for the third time now! “I need a document the board can use to hold me accountable, that I can use to hold the leadership team accountable, and the leadership team can use to hold the line staff accountable.”

19. Execute accountably.

The best way to prevent those dust bunnies from breeding? Pick up the plan daily, execute it, and stay accountable for creating results that matter to the people you serve.

Older and somewhat less awesome versions of this article appeared on Linkedin Pulse with the title How Nonprofit Chief Executives Get What They Want from Strategic Planning and on my blog with the title Strategic Planning Preparation in 15 Easy Steps.