Volunteers—A Radical Resource for Change
A sage nonprofit observer once said to me, All good plans sooner
or later have to degenerate into work. This leads me to my own axiom
that would fit as a condition of the first one: All good ideas sooner
or later need to degenerate into plans. I suspect that the source
of the all good plans sooner or later have to generate into work
quip comes from someone exposed to a poor planning process that
not only displaced work but also tried the patience of both board
members and staff and ended poorly.
“... a little planning can
prevent too much planning.”
Let's look at one common reason a planning process
bogs down and does not produce results: the unplanned plan. Said
another way, a little planning can prevent too much planning.
Here are some suggestions on how to go about planning
a plan. This is apropos for long range or strategic planning. I
note a difference here as the term long range while still in use
has gone somewhat out of favor as it tends to indicate a planning
process that attempts to formalize the future out quite far, but
does not examine strategies very thoroughly where as strategic indicates
that the whole organization will be looked at and that, while goals
and objectives may be formulated, the emphasis will be on identifying
strategies for change over a shorter period of time (usually 3-5
years). I thus use the term strategic planning to emphasize the
decision-making process that will encompass an in-depth evaluation
of many strategies and their alternatives.
“Is it reasonable to assume
the plan will make any difference in how the organization operates?”
First and foremost, before jumping on board the idea
of doing a strategic plan, assess whether your organization should
undertake such a process. Is the timing for undertaking this activity
right? Is it reasonable to assume the plan will make any difference
in how the organization operates? If the answer is no to these questions,
maybe going through the motions will propel you nowhere and waste
valuable time and money. If you're not sure what the benefits could
be, or even what it means to do such a plan, ask your colleagues
about their experiences, ask to see their plans, or call a local
management support center or consulting firm that will give you
an hour or so to hear their approach to planning.
“Two excellent resources are
You may also want to read up on the benefits of planning
and the various models of planning. Two excellent resources are:
Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations by John
M. Bryson of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs
and Strategic Planning Workbook for Nonprofits by Bryan W. Barry,
Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.
We think you'll probably be convinced that there will
be very real benefits for you to plan strategically. If you want
to control your future rather than be victimized by it, strategic
planning can help you create this future by capitalizing on your
strengths and external opportunities while minimizing the threats
a rapidly changing environment presents to us all. Also, as Professor
Bryson points out, it will help your organization's overall performance.
There is at least one obvious compelling reason not
to undertake a formal planning process: it's called a crisis. Just
as all good communicators know you don't engage in active listening
strategies when someone yells "fire", you don't go into
a strategic or long range planning mode when you need to put out
an in-house flame.
“... a poor excuse for not
planning is that it will slow a very gifted, intuitive leader
down. Don't sign off on this excuse. ”
One other less than legitimate reason given as an
excuse for not planning is that the organization has a very gifted,
intuitive leader and planning will just slow her or him down. Don't
sign off on this excuse. It is rare when one individual's thinking
is sufficient to guide the total organization and it's even more
difficult to get others to buy into that individually developed
vision if they are not part of the planning process.
Another illegitimate reason for not planning has to
do with the fear of controversy: The let-sleeping-dogs-lie argument.
Don't accept this one either unless you think you can afford to
snooze while other organizations are planning your future.
O.K. So now you've decided to plan. Sharpen your pencil
and answer the following questions:
1. Who will be in charge of the plan?
“Without these responsibilities
clearly spelled out, no one is at the helm and the process will
Is it the board chair, the executive director, or
some other leader? Who is going to champion the plan? Who is going
to lead the meetings? Who's going to staff the committee, keep the
minutes? Without these responsibilities clearly spelled out, no
one is at the helm and the process will not progress.
2. Who's to be included in the formal planning process?
There are some planners who will tell you that just
going through the process of planning, gaining some consensus on
key issues and future decisions is the most significant outcome
of planning regardless of what is actually committed to paper. In
other words, the process has to involve key persons, both volunteer
and paid, who will need to own the plan in the future and to buy
into its implementation.
In larger, more hierarchical organizations key staff
from the front line to top management should be at least represented.
In smaller organizations, the executive director and appropriate
other staff can be involved. In all cases they should not overwhelm
the board representatives or the board as a whole if they are all
You will need to decide whether you want other stakeholders
involved beyond board and staff.
Remember too many make the decision-making too cumbersome. Eight
to nine is probably as large as you should go. You can hold focus
group meetings with other staff and others whose opinions are crucial
to include. Which is not to say either, that the full board must
have final review and approval of whatever plan is ultimately developed.
3. What committee should do it?
Certainly a committee of the board. Many organizations
use their executive committee or program committee. Often a special
planning or strategic marketing committee is set up for this purpose.
Setting up a new committee elevates it out of the ordinary day-today
focus of the organization. This, in turn, helps to highlight the
critical nature of the work to be done.
4. What planning methodology should be used?
There are many methods that can bring you through
the process successfully. The resources mentioned, or other books
on strategic planning, can help you sort this out. A consultant
might be brought in just to plan the strategies if you aren't sure
which planning process suits you best.
Given the more competitive world we live in today, more and more
planning is taking on the lingo and processes of marketing professionals
who are especially good at determining your competitive edge and
help you tie what yours consumers want to what you want to offer
them. In this case, some one with for-profit business background
might be helpful. The proviso here is that they would need to understand
the mission-driven nature of your enterprise to be fully useful.
One other proviso-because I stress competitive edge, this is not
to discount the important strategies that all nonprofits must deeply
consider-those of cooperation and collaboration with others.
5. What is the most appropriate timeline
for the plan itself?
Do you want to look out three years, five years,
or beyond? There is no pat formulas, but the smaller you are, the
more flexible you may be and staying short is probably advisable.
Larger agencies can't move so fast and thus need longer planning
horizons. The methodology you choose will also play a role in deciding
6. How long should the process take?
You should probably consider taking two days to a
year, spending eight hours to one hundred and eight. Yes, it can
be that short or that extended. Much depends on your size and the
amount of homework that will need to be done. Professor Bryson suggests
that ten percent of key staff members time spent on planning in
a year is not unreasonable.
Generally, given time constraints of board members
and staff and the time needed to gather information, six months
to a year would be a normal range of time for the plan to be completely
7. Is an outside consultant needed?
Well, remember who is writing this article. We're
a little biased in favor of planning consultants. We think they
can lend objectivity to the process, they can help the chairperson
and executive director participate more directly in the process,
and they should help move the process crisply along. But if you
have some skilled experienced planners in the organization or on
the board, you may want to do it yourselves.
In sum, to be effective, formal planning should itself
be planned. These steps should be taken to plan a plan.
1) Determine your level of commitment to inclusive
strategic decision-making and your current organizational capacity
2) Think through the logistics and the methodology
that are most likely to meet the needs of your organization; and
3) don't hesitate to look to outside resources if you think they
could assist you in answering any of the above questions or guide
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