EP 1: Strategic Planning – Part 1: Why Strategic Planning?

July 28, 2022

Show Notes

What’s the point of strategic planning? Is it just something nonprofits are “supposed” to do? How do we actually use it to guide our day-to-day work? How does the whole organization buy into a strategic plan?

These are the questions we love to hear.

In this episode, Tucker Wannamaker, CEO of THRIVE IMPACT, and Sarah Fanslau, Chief of Impact, discuss a few core questions at the heart of the rebirth of the strategic planning process. 

We talk about why strategic planning is important in the first place and where it goes off the rails. We identify the pain points nonprofit leaders face around buy-in and the common pitfalls of developing a strategic plan. Spoiler: Most strategic plans are doomed from the start.

Throughout the episode, we also dive into how strategic planning can actually be a means to resolving numerous issues throughout the organization. Improved culture, staff retention, and engagement are a few unexpected byproducts of a co-created strategic plan.



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Tucker: Hey, there. Welcome to THRIVERS: Nonprofit Leadership for the Next Normal. I am your host, Tucker Wannamaker, the CEO of THRIVE IMPACT. And our mission is to solve nonprofit leader burnout, because burnout is the enemy of creating positive change. And we want to connect you with impactful mission-driven leaders so that you can learn to thrive in today’s nonprofit landscape.

I am joined today by my co-host, Sarah Fanslau. Welcome, Sarah.

Sarah: Hey, Tucker. Good to be here again.

Tucker: Good to have you here. And I am excited for this series that we’re kicking off, a four part series about strategic planning.

Sarah: Not everybody may be excited, but get excited. Yeah, this is gonna be a good one.

Tucker: There’s a lot going on here around strategic planning. In fact, we had started recording a podcast the other day that ended up lasting for like 18 episodes. I realized maybe we need to break this one down a little bit more because it’s actually such a big topic. It’s an important topic. Many organizations put a lot of resources towards this topic, put a lot of time towards this topic, put a lot of thinking power and creativity towards this topic.

And, so we’re gonna talk about why, why is strategic planning, why does it even matter? Why is it even important?

So, Sarah, I’m gonna kick that off with you. Let me just ask you a question.

Why is this important? Like why is strategic planning, like why do nonprofits even need a strategic plan in the first place?

Sarah: Yeah, it’s such a good question. And I’ll be honest that I love planning, but not everybody does.

Right. And so a lot of times when we start talking about planning, you know, creatives or other folks are gonna start by being like, “Oh, it’s so boring.” But the “why” behind it is actually really exciting because the “why” is about creating the best possible version and vision for the future for an organization.

And so, you know, you think about planning on one hand, boring. And on the other side, if you’re not planning, you’re never asking that question of what’s really possible. And that is the power of a good strategic plan. And ultimately the “why” behind the plan is making your organization continually able to see and give space to what’s in front of you.

Tucker: You know, Sarah, I will freely admit, and you know this very well, I do not love planning.

Sarah: I know

Tucker: I do not.

Sarah: I know

Tucker: I’m a fly by, not fly by the seat of my pants, but like in the spirit of plan tight and hang loose, I tend to hang more loose than I do to plan tight. You know, and there’s value to that and there’s need there, and there’s definitely value to the plan tight side.

But as you even just shared right now that got me excited, to be honest, around the times that we have spent even inside of THRIVE IMPACT, as well as with the organizations we work with, what that has done for me as somebody who tends to be a little more of a visionary type of person, wanting people to be on board and feeling like they they’re a part.

Going through this process has been an immensely helpful piece for me that allows for us to plan tight and also allows for me to hang loose more in the way that I want to hang loose as a leader.

Sarah: A hundred percent. Yeah, I love that. What else, Tucker, for you, as we’re doing strategic planning for folks, what else does that process help organizations do?

Tucker: Well, I think, you know, what I’ve noticed is it creates space for us to really understand: “What are we doing here? What are we really doing here?”

You know, for example, with THRIVE IMPACT actually, you know what I’ve been realizing, and this is partly through our own strategic planning process, but also through just some space that I’ve been able to have of reflecting on what are we really doing here is that we’re not just like this nice, you know, helping nonprofit leaders thrive organization.

We actually are a social justice mission that is helping to tackle systemic problems that have undergirded and have stolen dignity away from nonprofit leaders for decades and decades and decades. Right?

And as I was continuing to reflect on what are we really doing here? And what are we doing in this work? I’ve noticed that it was because of this type of strategic planning process that we even have. It’s a rhythm that we have that has helped me to continue to go into that space. And I think about, you know, one of the examples that we use in our process has been Disney, what business are they really in?

You know, when theme parks was their primary, were they in the theme park business? Is that what they were in? Well, no, because, and we all know this, what does Disney say that they are? They’re the happiest place on earth.

And what they knew and they articulated very specifically was that they were in the happiness business.

And even down to there’s a fascinating story about how families, when they joined theme parks, they did all this deep study around understanding the level of unhappiness actually, that families, when they came into a theme park, that they were feeling this sort of buyer’s remorse.

You know, because Disney’s not exactly cheap. Right?

Sarah: It’s stressful and it’s expensive, right? Yeah, a hundred percent.

Tucker: And so, because they realized that they are in the happiness business, that was their north star. They developed a whole process that when you come to the Disney theme parks, you don’t just park in a parking lot and then walk right in, there’s there’s literally about a 20 to 25 minute process for you to get out of your car, to be taken on a ride, and brought into the theme park. And that’s because they did a study on what creates happiness and one of them on how do you get out of unhappiness as well.

And so therefore they created this process. But that wouldn’t have come about if they didn’t realize at the top of what they’re doing, that they’re in the happiness business.

Sarah: Right? Yep. The vision piece, a hundred percent.

Tucker: Yeah, a hundred percent. I think about a nonprofit that we worked with called Resolve. One of the things that was fascinating for me as we went through this journey with them, was they’re “Resolve: The National Infertility Association”. What they thought that they were in was the infertility business. Meaning helping people get more coverage to infertility treatments.

But what they realized in this strategic planning process is that they’re not in the infertility business, they’re in the family-building business.

Sarah: Right. It’s like the positive opposite.

Tucker: It was the positive opposite. Yeah, it was fascinating. And not only that, but that completely shifted, for example, they do a lot of work in policy on Capitol Hill in D.C.

Instead of talking about infertility bills, they started talking about family-building bills.

Didn’t that start shifting the language? And if somebody was not for their bill, they could have said something, and they do actually, were they anti-family building?

Well, that sounds a lot different and feels a lot different because they realize that they believe in a world where everybody deserves the opportunity to build the family that they want.

And that completely shapes their entire programmatic structure altogether.

So getting that space for having that north star, that is co-created and that everybody aligns with objectively that we’ve all put it together, is such a valuable, important part of the process.

Sarah: Totally. And I think what you’re also hitting on is that so often, quite frankly, a lot of times organizations don’t have strategic plans. But I think sometimes we think, “Oh, everyone’s got a strategic plan. It may not be great. Maybe it’s sitting on the shelf.” But no, actually a lot of organizations don’t.

But that doesn’t mean organizations don’t plan. Right? It’s just that a lot of times organizations are saying, “Operationally, what do we need? What’s the budget? How many staff members do we need? And even maybe what are our goals for the year?” But what those operational conversations leave out is what you just noted, which is the, “Who are we really and what are we here to do?”

Now, that may not be a conversation that you do every year, but it is certainly a conversation that you need to be having at regular intervals. Which is something that we’ve heard, you know, a lot from the nonprofits that we work with. The opportunity to step back, have those conversations, and create that north star for a period of time to work against is so impactful.

Tucker: So, you know, Sarah, there’s the old cliche in the nonprofit space. You know, we ask this in our THRIVE IMPACT 101 workshop every month that we do, it’s a free workshop, is “How many of you by show of hands have experienced the pain of an irrelevant strategic plan?”

You know, and they laugh.

Everybody laughs. And almost everybody always raises their hand. Right?

Sarah: A hundred percent.

Tucker: You know, it’s kinda like why is there a cliche in the nonprofit landscape of the old strategic plan sitting on a shelf gathering dust? Well, the reason why there’s a cliche is because it happens all the time. Right?

Sarah: It’s the truth!

Tucker: Like what are these pains? Like what is the issue here involved in nonprofit leaders regarding strategic planning? Like what’s going on here and why is this an issue?

Sarah: Yeah, well, I have a few to share and then I know you have a lot, you know, I think the few that I’ve seen is just that one, it takes time and it takes resources, right? Money. And so oftentimes folks, you know, nonprofits, we’re known for not having enough time, talent, and treasure. Those are things we’re always working to get. And so we have to decide where we spend them. And quite frankly, a lot of organizations just don’t decide that strategic planning is important enough to spend their resources on.

So I think that’s one thing, but once folks get into it, I think a few of the things that I’ve seen really take folks off the rails is one, not discussing trade-offs. Right? I think the other thing sometimes we do as nonprofits is we wanna have our cake and eat it too. We wanna do it all because it’s so important.

The work is so important. Right? What does it mean to shut down a program serving young people, or serving people experiencing homelessness? That is a huge choice to make, right? Because it really impacts folks on the ground. And yet, unless we have conversations about trade-off, we cannot serve that highest vision that we work toward in this strategic plan.

So I think oftentimes plans sit on the shelf because people don’t have that important conversation about what we may need to stop doing, start doing, keep doing, or innovate on. And that’s a really important chat to have while you’re planning.

Tucker: Hmm. That, that reminds me of one of our shifts in that THRIVE 101 workshop that we do, which is “Stop Saying Yes.”

And, the positive opposite of stop saying yes is double down on your unique value. But to your point, if we don’t create the space, and it doesn’t have to be long and exhaustive either, by the way, it doesn’t have to be like a six month or a year long process, but creating space to reflect on, “What is the best of us?” Right? What is our actual unique value? We just did that within our own organization. Right? I mean, I’ve been reflecting on that myself. Yes. Of, “Huh? What is our unique value, actually? What is the biggest, most impactful thing that we do that we bring to nonprofit leaders?”

And, and frankly, hence why we’re here doing a strategic planning podcast. Because we were like, this is some of the best work that we do by far based on our own data, based on our own expertise. We need to let go of some of these other things that feel important. But when, as we really reflected on the state of where we’re at and our vision and where we’re trying to go, this needed to be dialed in, and honed, and focused on.

But if we didn’t have that objective process that we had gone through, how would we have known? We were all just having subjective conversations on a regular basis where it’s like, “Well, I feel like we should do this. Well, I feel like we should do this.”

Well, what does the data say? What does the objectivity or our alignment say? And I think that’s what’s really been helpful even for our own organization to double down on our unique value.

Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. What else, Tucker, as we’ve worked with organizations? What are you seeing is, you know, stopping them from implementing strategic plans they may already have.

Tucker: Well, I think definitely a severe lack of buy-in. I mean, clearly, most strategic planning processes, and this is what we’re gonna get into in some of these later episodes, is most strategic planning processes are top-down. But we know that people have energy towards what they get to create. And also too, those who are closest to the work have the most insight as well. And so, most of the time I think the biggest issue with strategic planning is it is this top-down. It’s a few of the leaders going away with maybe one consultant, and coming up with some idea of where they think they need to go and coming out and saying, “Here’s where we’re going.”

And, they may have checked off the box of obligation to gather input from the staff, which is typically like a survey. But it was done in a very non-human connective way. And so people didn’t, you know, and then all those answers typically will go through a filter of a consultant in the leadership team. But nobody felt like they were actually in creation around it. And so to me, that’s one of the biggest pains is shortcutting a genuine co-creative process by just doing it quick and doing it top-down.

You might as well not even do it, if you’re gonna do a top-down approach, in my opinion. It’d be better to have, you know, just to figure out some, something else than to, than to have a top-down.

So that’s one of the biggest pains that I see on a regular basis is that.

Sarah: Yeah, I agree. I think we’ve seen a lot of that happen, and ultimately when a leader does that, they already have the answer that they’re going away to put a plan around. And what strategic planning does is not start with an idea of the endpoint, but rather open up the conversation for multiple endpoints to be explored.

And I think when you do that, if you end back up at the same place, that’s okay. So for example, an organization we just are wrapping up working with is focused on mental health. And one of the core pieces of the plan is around excellent care. Now, could they have told us at the start of the plan, that might be one of the areas? Sure. But it was the process of asking what’s important to the whole staff and letting that come out and then really refining what that means over the next three to five years, that is the work. So I a hundred percent agree with you there.

Tucker: I think one of the other issues too, is treating it like a, hence the sitting on the shelf gathering desk, treating it like a static plan. I even wrestle around with this myself like, “Should we call it a strategic direction instead of a plan?” Because does a plan feel done, whereas a direction feels like we’re learning and leaning into? And we’re going to iterate and shift. And hence why having a learning process. So for organizations, as an example, who have a strategic plan, maybe sitting on the shelf gathering dust right now or sitting in that Google Drive or SharePoint drive gathering technical dust, getting into a learning rhythm around, “Does this still, you know, the key components of that plan, how might we continue to iterate because we’re learning so quick?”

And we’re in such a speed of change and a complexity of change time, that we need to adapt. The faster we adapt our learning to the plan, the better off we’re gonna be. And so I think that’s one of the other pains is that people treat it like once the process is done, the plan’s done.

No, actually the plan just started. You know, the learning just started in many ways. And so that’s another issue I see a lot.

Sarah: That’s a big shift for folks to make, and that’s where we’re a little different, right? Lots of folks may do strategic planning. They may even engage the staff but going beyond that to help organizations think about “How do you create a learning organization?” I think is one of the real differentiators of our process, and helps organizations keep doing that over time. So, it’s an important piece for sure. But I wanna move on and ask you a question here.

So let’s say leaders looking to create a new strategic plan. Why is now the right time to create one and what’s the next step they should take?

Tucker: To me, we’re in this time, we’re kind of in this interesting post-ish pandemic time, right? There’s been massive disruption and shift over the last few years. And it is one of those times that, I’m actually really curious, this is my own hypothesis, are we coming into a challenging time for nonprofits?

Mainly because of fatigue, frankly. A lot of nonprofits actually saw donations increase over the last few years, and I think a lot of that had to do with empathy around this, you know, in the pains of our communities. I do wonder if there’s a lot of fatigue right now.

And so I think we’re in one of those times where I mentioned earlier that the speed and the complexity of change that is happening around us is happening at such an exponential rate that many of us are struggling to adapt to. And I would raise my hand on that, too. Like I’ve been learning how to adapt myself and so what I would say is, if you’re looking to create a new strategic plan, now is not a time to create a strategic plan that needs to sit on the shelf gathering dust. Right? Now is not a time to create a top-down, not involving in a real human way, a co-created process. Now is the time to create a co-created process that engages your staff around, you’ve gone through two years worth of disruption. We all have in so many ways. And it is, if you have not created one, now is the time to do that, because there’s been so much that you’ve learned, actually.

In fact, you know, one of my favorite questions that we ask a lot of organizations is reflecting on a time where you face a seemingly insurmountable obstacle and yet you were able to overcome. A lot of times when we reflect on what’s happened over the last couple years, we’re gonna reflect and notice that there are some real superpowers that we have unique value. Like what we talked about earlier, that we didn’t even realize until we started reflecting on what happened over these last few years.

Some real innovations through survival and things that we needed to do. And so this is a great inflection point as a whole, on a macro level, great inflection point for organizations to be able to really do that deeper dive with their own organizations, with their teams, their boards, even some of their external stakeholders, and doing it in a way of building community with those people. And so I think now is a great time for people to do that because of this inflection point that we’re all finding ourselves in.

Sarah: Yeah, totally. I think the other thing to add on is that so many organizations are struggling with culture, and with staff leaving, and with retaining staff. And a lot of that is about old ways of working no longer fitting in this new or Next Normal. And a lot of folks are gonna say, “So what does a strategic plan have to do with culture?”

And they are so connected. Right?

And so I think the other thing is if you are struggling with culture, if you have staff who are leaving, if you have staff who are telling you they’re not gonna stick it out, if you can’t hire, you need to do a strategic plan the way we’re doing it. Because it is going to engage and involve staff who have not been engaged and involved. And it’s gonna set course with them for where you’re going. And I’ll just say, we just worked with an organization who literally did.

Tucker: I was just gonna say this.

Sarah: You go ahead. You tell it.

Tucker: Oh, I just love this story, because it was the culture work as a part of our process and there was one of their, probably like more, not fully their senior leadership team, but it they were, you know, an important leader. I mean, they’re all important, but there was a really important leader in their organization that was actually leaving.

They were leaving to go to another job. They had a better offer actually, I think, potentially monetarily, but they stayed on through the rest of the strategic planning process. One of our workshops is called the Innovate Workshop and they were a part of this and felt deeply the culture, and who this organization is really, the values that they hold dear. And seeing the level of energy, they literally decided to call the other employer that they were about to start with, in I think just a couple weeks, and say, “You know what, there is no, why should I leave this place? Like this place is great.” And she, that person, decided to stay. And it was because of this process, of really engaging the whole staff, and legitimately asking their voice and what mattered to them, that this person ended up staying and appreciating the leadership and the level of culture that they had there. It was incredibly powerful.

Sarah: Yeah. This is “next normal” planning, right? Y’all, like the planning of the past where it’s a few folks in a room with an Excel document. It’s dead, right? That is a dead time. But so many people don’t know how to move from that to where we need to go. And it’s this process that I think, you know, if you’re sitting out there listening and are thinking, “Man, I’m having these issues, I don’t know how to create the culture I want to.” You know, you’re a great candidate for this work, because you have to want to change, right? A hundred percent. But doing it is hard if you don’t have the tools. And that’s partly what the strategic planning process can help you do.

Tucker: Yeah. I’m so glad you hit the culture piece because it’s such, you know, in the age that we’re in, which is this sort of Great Reassessment, right? People have called the Great Resignation, but, which many people have experienced, but it’s really the Great Reassessment, which is, “What really matters to me as a person?” We’re all asking that question. And when you can involve people in creating what matters to me and to us, I mean, it supercharges your culture. It’s powerful. Yeah. I’m so glad you brought up that point.

Sarah: Well, and it’s a framework for decision making. Not just about the organization, but once you’ve decided on that north star, people can opt in or out more fully based on that shared vision and version. Not just staff, but board members, too.

So oftentimes we have boards with folks who have been sitting there for ages and they don’t always have the tools they need to say yes or no. “Should I stay here? Should I not? My time’s valuable.” And this also helps those folks think, “You know what? Either I am so energized by this new north star or, you know what? This is no longer my north star and that’s okay.”

So that’s the other thing I love.

Tucker: Yeah. Well, so here’s what we got coming up. We got a few more episodes around strategic planning. We’re gonna dive deep into some of the key components of our process, but more from a teaching perspective around how we do what we do and why we go about doing it this way.

And give you some real clear tools and tricks and ways in which to engage your own team that you can actually do yourself. You can bring us on whatever works for you, but, what we just implore you to do is one, if you don’t have a strategic plan, create one and do it in a way that engages all your team, your whole staff, all your voices, your whole board.

And we’re gonna go through a lot of the ways in which we go about doing that. So you can learn a little bit more about the Next Normal way of strategic planning. Like the old way, as Sarah you said, is out and the new way is here. It’s already here. We just need to lean into it.

So next week we’re gonna hit on our methodology, appreciative inquiry, and co-creation, and what does that even mean? How do you create an inclusive environment? Meaning we’re able to include all the voices involved, which is incredibly important when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. That we give ample voice and inclusion to all voices.

We’re gonna be then talking about data-driven alignment after that in another episode. And how do we gather data? What is data that is important in this type of a process, and how do we use that to create an objective alignment and a decision making process, Sarah, as you shared.

And then we’re gonna talk more deeply about building a learning organization and the cultural components around building the culture that you need to be able to really enact the strategic planning or the strategic plan that you’ve created.

Sarah: So much more than a plan. Right? It’s so much more than a plan.

Tucker: Yeah. Well, and really, Sarah, my final point here is that what we’ve noticed is that it’s such a great opportunity to enroll people into an exciting journey of the discovery of the best of who we are and the discovery of the best of who we can be.

And that’s exciting. That’s inspirational. And that’s what people want right now.

Well, we’re glad you all joined us for this episode. If you want tools and resources or facilitators to help you in your strategic planning process, visit our website at thriveimpact.org. And to make it easy, we’ll include it in our show notes.

Thank you again for joining us and we’ll see you on the next episode about strategic planning on THRIVERS Nonprofit Leadership for the Next Normal. See you later.

Sarah: Thanks, y’all.