Home > Articles > How strategic planning happens, part one: From environmental scan to the board-staff retreat

How strategic planning happens, part one: From environmental scan to the board-staff retreat

In April, I led a discussion with a roomful of nonprofit professionals for GCN’s member event, Developing a Strategic Plan that Works for Your Organization. Over two hours, we explored the process that leads to a successful strategic plan, as well as a number of options for conducting it; we also shared challenges and solutions from our own experiences. In this piece and the follow-up, I’ll highlight a few of the session’s top takeaways.

In part one, we’ll look at environmental scan and the board-staff planning retreat. In part two, we’ll talk briefly about the draft-and-refine process and board approval, then go a bit more in-depth into the implementation plan – a critical aspect that’s too often forgotten.

The average planning process tends to take six months, but you’ll want to be sure you cap it at nine; otherwise, people tend to lose enthusiasm and can feel overwhelmed.

All told, the strategic planning process can be covered in anywhere from three to nine months. The average planning process tends to take six months, but you’ll want to be sure you cap it at nine; otherwise, people tend to lose enthusiasm and can feel overwhelmed. Many organizations utilize a small team or task force to lead this process. This task force can include board members, staff, and other stakeholders, including donors or partners.

Gathering context, internal and external

Initially, you want to do the environmental scan. The question behind it: What do we think is going to happen over the time horizon we’re tackling in our strategic plan?

There are a few frameworks to help you tackle this work. One of the most well-known is the SWOT analysis, which refers to Strengths and Weaknesses (internal to your organization), and Opportunities and Threats (external to your organization). Another is PEST, which refers to Political, Economic, Social, and Technology changes.

Regardless, here are some points worth investigating:

  • What's going on in your sector. Of course, GCN is a good source – we recently held presentations on trends in giving and the sector in general – as well Independent Sector and the National Council of Nonprofits. If you happen to overlap with an industry like health care or education, check for those trends as well.
  • What your data is telling you. Look for trends (over 3-5 years) in your data on outcomes, clients, and donors. Are we retaining donors? Are we producing the outcomes we want to achieve? Where are our clients coming from?
  • Demographic, economic, and social changes. For instance, Metro Atlanta is changing very rapidly, in multiple dimensions. What does that mean for our client population? Our donors? Our specific communities?
  • Opportunities. Is there a gap in services we can fill, or a policy change that we can take advantage of?
  • Threats. For instance, when the postal service was thinking about not doing mail on saturday, one organization I worked with found that it would have serious implications for their direct appeal program.
  • Alternatives. Think expansively about alternate choices available to beneficiaries and donors alike: similar organizations and whatever clients could be doing rather than using your services. (If you’re an afterschool program, one alternative would be “playing video games at home.”)
  • Impact. What kind of change are we making or not making? What kind of change do we want to make?
  • Your resources. What do you need to move your operation forward, in terms of board competencies and experience, staff, technology, and processes?

To plan the environmental scan process, discuss the tools you're going to use and the stakeholders you want to involve. It's great to have some board perspective, staff perspective, volunteers (if you use them), and clients – both current and “alumni.” You should also check in with donors: What do they care about? What’s their experience with your organization been like?

A few tips:

  • If you're doing the quick version of the environmental scan, talk to at least ten people.
  • To solicit honest staff feedback, use someone not in leadership and not on the board. (People are not always entirely open with their supervisors!)
  • If using a survey, be sure to include an open-ended question so stakeholders can get specific about what they're thinking.
  • Unsure what to ask? Use the SWOT framework. For instance, "What do you see as the opportunities for us? What could we be doing?"

Another great source for perspective and advice: organizations similar to yours. And you don’t need an exact match to provide useful benchmarks; maybe they’re further along in their development, or maybe they’ve got a different program but a similar client demographic, but they can still provide insight into what’s working, what’s challenging them, obstacles overcome, and more.

Another great source for perspective and advice: organizations similar to yours. And you don't need an exact match to provide useful benchmarks.

Run into organizations unwilling to engage? Consider this tip from an attendee: “When it came time to speak to other organizations about best practices, we sought relationships. We got an introduction from someone already involved, and offered to share our research in return for their input. When we wrapped up our environmental scan, we provided our findings to everyone who pitched in.”

All together now: Rolling up your sleeves

There was a time when the board-staff planning retreat would go on for two days, but that’s a big expenditure of board members’ time and energy. With a well-planned-out agenda, you can have a robust discussion in just 4 to 6 hours. Factors to consider:

  • Who is needed? Board and staff, certainly, but the number and level of staff depends on your organization. Your leadership team is critical.
  • Buy-in. Think on the personalities coming together, and how to engage them in the most productive way possible – from the beginning. Some organizations utilize a strategic planning task force to provide ongoing guidance for the process and build buy-in.
  • Common understanding. The first thing to do is spend some time – at least 45 minutes to an hour – walking through the data to make everyone understands what it means, including any questions and opportunities raised. This also helps orient everyone’s thinking toward priorities for the future (rather than rehashing events from 10 years ago).
  • Mission themes, not mission statements. When discussing the mission, an on-the-fly wordsmithing situation can quickly derail productive conversation. Make it clear that you’re looking for themes, rather than a final statement. A smaller group can wordsmith the results later for the full team.
  • What success looks like. Update your vision statement. One way to do get to this is to write your obituary: When our organization goes away, what will we have accomplished? I love to break up into small groups for these activities.
  • Priorities. The baseline goal for this session is to get agreement regarding what the organization should focus on, specifically. What do we want to be intentional about over the next 3-5 years?
  • Goals and objectives. With priorities decided, it’s often best to break into smaller groups to develop goals around each. Goals must be specific and measurable, covering your benefit to community, clients, and donors – the difference you make, not the actions you take. Once goals are decided upon, you work backwards to come up with concrete ways to accomplish them; these are your objectives.

Interested in learning more about best practices for the strategic planning process, what a finalized plan looks like, and the free planning tools GCN has available? Reach out to me personally at [email protected] or 678-916-3079, or contact GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group at [email protected] or 678-916-3008. And, of course, be sure to watch for Part Two, covering tips for drafting the plan and putting it into action.

Elizabeth Runkle is a senior consultant for GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group.

Subscribe to GCN Articles RSS


9.09.21, 10.19.21, 11.16.21 | Atlanta
9.09.21, 10.19.21, 11.16.21 | Atlanta