By Kaitlyn Kendall-Sperry, Senior Consultant, Benefactor Group

Strategic planning—an essential activity for any nonprofit—is an opportunity to step back from everyday work and thoughtfully review: Where are we today? Where do we aspire to go? How will we get there? Done well, a strategic plan provides a flexible roadmap: one that moves you in the direction of your envisioned future, while also allowing you to adapt as the world changes.

Importantly, strategic planning is a partnership between the board and staff. As such, a natural question often follows: how involved should each group be? In our work, we’ve heard diverse expectations—from “my board expects me to bring them a fully developed plan to approve” to “strategic planning is the board’s responsibility; why do I need to involve staff?”

So, what is the right answer?

The Board’s Role…

According to BoardSource

Traditionally, strategic planning is a board-driven process. BoardSource, the trusted resource for board governance, has this to say about the board’s role in strategic planning:

One of the board’s primary responsibilities is to set direction for the organization through strategic planning…Working side-by-side with staff leadership, your board should play an active and substantive role in developing, approving, and supporting your organization’s strategic planning.

In practice, this means significant board involvement in developing the plan (including the mission, vision, values, and strategic direction), monitoring progress toward the plan’s goals, regularly reviewing and updating the plan, and ensuring the organization has the resources to implement the plan. Boards are not expected to be involved in the direct implementation of the plan.

What we’re seeing

At Benefactor Group, we’ve seen organizations with board-driven processes, staff-driven processes…and everything in between. Most choose to live in the “in between,” including a mix of board and staff leadership in the process. Often, the level of board engagement is driven by the size and sector of an organization. Why?

  • Large, complex organizations—such as healthcare systems or universities—often require highly specialized knowledge to make informed decisions about the institution’s strategic direction: understanding the influence of different payor models, for example, or federal policies toward financial aid. This knowledge is largely held by staff; as a result, the board often plays a more passive role in strategic planning for these large/complex institutions.
  • Smaller organizations where staff—who wear many hats—may not have sufficient time to dedicate to a strategic planning process on top of their everyday work. As a result, the board may play a more active role. Here, the board’s gifts of work, wisdom, and perhaps a bit of wit (a la The 4 W’s: Building A Better Board) are essential. These board members were recruited to help your organization succeed through their individual talents. Strategic planning is the perfect opportunity to put those talents to use.

Our Recommendations

The best approach is to leverage the strengths of both perspectives: board and staff. Include staff and board leaders on committees (e.g., a Strategic Planning Task Force), and seek input from both groups during discovery. Jenny Bergman, Senior Consultant at Benefactor Group and a BoardSource-certified Nonprofit Board Consultant, emphasizes the need to strike a balance.

“A board plays a crucial role in setting the direction of an organization, but this doesn’t mean their decisions are absolute. Strategic planning should involve the board and internal and external stakeholders. While staff involvement is crucial, they shouldn’t be the sole architects of the plan. Ensuring transparency in communication about the strategic planning process is vital. Imagine being a staff member tasked with operationalizing a plan without understanding “the why.”

The balance of voices depends on your organization. Here are a few factors to consider when making decisions regarding your process:

  • Pay attention to culture. Regardless of the makeup of your guiding committee (e.g., your Strategic Planning Task Force), consider the group’s dynamics. Do staff members feel comfortable sharing their thoughts in front of board members? Will your board members give credence to the on-the-ground perspective of staff members? Board and staff leaders should work together to build a team that can have candid, productive (and sometimes difficult) conversations about your organization’s future.
  • Leave implementation to the staff. When it comes to implementation, leave the operational tasks to the staff. Unless a project is directly related to the board (e.g., a board engagement plan) or intentionally leverages a board member’s expertise (e.g., having a marketing expert help develop your marketing and communications plan), the board should not be accountable for implementing strategic initiatives.
  • Pay attention to resources. One thing boards should do when it comes to implementation is pay attention to resources and bandwidth. In practice, boards may struggle to grasp the practicalities of implementing a strategic plan. They should assess whether additional staff or funding is necessary to execute the plan effectively and how it integrates into the day-to-day operations of the staff.
  • Monitor, learn, and adjust. One of the board’s most important roles is monitoring progress toward the strategic plan’s goals. To this end, boards should receive updates on the plan’s progress at each board meeting. They should take a critical look at progress, listen to feedback from staff leadership (e.g., about what’s working and what isn’t), and help to decide if/when it is time to pivot. Perhaps a project isn’t producing the expected outcomes. Or a sudden change in community needs means a priority needs to shift. Be willing to discuss changes to the plan to ensure your organization reaches its envisioned future.

For more information about how to create a strategic plan, check out Benefactor Group’s additional resources here, or contact Kaitlyn Kendall-Sperry at [email protected].