Board members and stakeholders in downtown Beloit develop work plans that align with their five-year vision.
Looking forward to 2024, many organizations are thinking about their priorities for the new year.
If your organization has not completed a strategic plan in the past five years, it may be time to do so. A strategic plan is designed to make your organization more efficient, more responsive, and more coordinated in its work. The plan allows you to provide a clear picture of your organization’s vision for the community and call attention to tangible results of its efforts.
A focused strategic plan informs plans for fundraising, marketing, and work projects, making sure that each element of the Four Points approach—economic vitality, design, promotion, and organization—is directed toward a common goal. A strategic plan creates an opportunity to look ahead to the future rather than getting mired in the chaos of the day-to-day. Building an annual action plan that leads toward bigger future goals actually makes it easier for an organization to say no to requests that do not align with the vision and to encourage partners and funders to make long-term investments rather than focusing on one-time events or activities that may be unrelated to larger goals or to each other.
For organizations considering embarking on a new strategic plan, here are some tips to make the process as effective as possible.
First, consider what the organization hopes to achieve through strategic planning.
For an organization that is performing well and achieving its goals, a simple vision refresher and goal update might be all that is needed, while an organization with many new board or staff members might need a deeper dive into discussions of mission and impact. Decide what your organization wants to accomplish in the coming year and build this into the process. For instance, are you hoping to:
- Engage new audiences? Make sure to invite them to the table from the start.
- Get out of a rut? Host the session somewhere new, and make sure to include a variety of big picture and out-of-the-box visioning activities.
- Establish buy-in for a new direction? Highlight testimonials and impact figures from past initiatives in the background materials you share prior to the meeting, and be prepared to identify projects or tasks that can be let go in order to take on something new.
It’s also important to acknowledge that planning cannot solve every problem. If the organization lacks direction, board or staff lack accountability, or turnover is high, it would be better to focus on a few tangible steps that improve the organization’s function and reputation rather than embarking on new projects that are unlikely to be completed.
Preparing to plan
Once you’ve decided to undertake the planning process, make sure that you put in the advance work to create a foundation for success. Revisit past plans and identify which elements have been completed and which have fallen by the wayside, and why. Come prepared to the meeting with—or send to members in advance—critical information on the organization’s history, performance, budget, and staff and volunteer time allocation.
An impact matrix recognizes the relative cost (time and resources) versus impact of various initiatives.
If the organization serves specific communities or has a core group of major funders, it is also worthwhile to survey these individuals. Knowing how your partners perceive the organization, which activities or programs they find most valuable, and what opportunities they see in the future are important perspectives to have during the visioning process. Provide a summary of their comments to the group before the visioning session to ensure that outcomes align with expectations of key constituents. It’s important that all planning participants have a shared understanding of the organization’s mission, programs, and past achievements so that everyone will feel comfortable and confident in suggesting which projects to move forward.
There is no one set of planning exercises that is guaranteed to be successful. As long as ample opportunities exist for everyone to provide input in a variety of ways and encourage thoughtful discussion, the process is likely to produce substantive results.
You can conduct a strategic planning process internally under the guidance of your organization’s own leaders, but it is often helpful to engage a facilitator for the day. This allows everyone present to participate equally and provides a third-party perspective—someone who can ask critical questions and make observations that may not be apparent to the group. It is important that as many board members as possible attend the entire planning event. Those who do not attend may not have the same level of commitment to the new goals because they weren’t part of the process.
The planning process should connect organization resources (inputs) to their respective short-term activities (outputs) while retaining a focus on desired results (outcomes).
In addition to some of the basics such as SWOT analysis (examining strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) and Five Whys (repeatedly asking why to get to the root of a problem), here are some exercises that can assist with community development planning:
- Cost-benefit matrix: Make a list of all the programs and activities that your organization conducts in a typical year. Create a matrix with cost (including time, resources, and advocacy) on one axis and impact on the other. As a group, place each of the programs on the matrix, and make plans to improve or eliminate programs that are high cost and low impact.
- $1 million and 1,000 volunteers: To encourage participants to think big, ask them to brainstorm ways that they would spend a $1 million charitable gift that would have the biggest impact on your downtown district. Then, ask how they would leverage the talents of 1,000 volunteers in the coming year. Most communities have the ability to raise funds and recruit volunteers for worthy causes, but often don’t think big enough when it comes to pursuing those results. What could you achieve with nearly unlimited means?
- 20-year vision activity: Ask each participant to name three measurable things that would be different in 20 years if the organization is successful in achieving its vision. How would the organization function differently or be perceived differently? How would the district appear or function differently to someone walking down the street? The key to this exercise is to list a specific change, such as only half of the community’s businesses staying open on weekends, 25% increase in foot traffic, etc.) This activity can also be done within each element of the Main Street Four Points approach.