As a strategic planner, I have worked with many non-profit boards over the course of my career. Some are really good at strategic, out-of-the-box thinking that pushes organizational norms and ways of doing business; others are pretty tactical. People ask how boards can be so task based when their job is to be visionary. Oftentimes tactical folks came to the board because they were really wonderful volunteers or event planners. They were asked to get involved because they knew how to expertly execute initiatives and could motivate others to get involved and bring outside volunteers with them.
There is nothing wrong with tactical thinkers or tactical doers. If NFPs didn’t have these people, nothing would get done. A bunch of big thinkers would sit around envisioning things and money wouldn’t get raised, services wouldn’t get delivered, clients wouldn’t get served and programs wouldn’t happen. So don’t mistake the doers for people you don’t need. You desperately need these people because they’re the ones that march out and make it happen.
Strategic Thinkers Push The Envelope
But, as you begin your strategic planning, it’s really helpful to have at least two or three who are truly strategic thinkers. These people ask questions and can think about the future in more abstract terms; terms that allow them to imagine a variety of different scenarios regarding where the organization might go and how it might get there. Often, they ask questions about viability of long-time programs or events. Annual ‘habits’ that other members of the organization take for granted, strategic thinkers ask questions about efficacy and productivity. These are the people who can think broadly, see only possibilities and ignore limitations. These are the strategy champions and when you begin to do a strategy plan, they are indispensable for a successful brainstorming and visioning session.
These people, put plainly, are hard to find. I have had some boards with more than enough strategic thinkers (say, one out of every 2 – whew!) but most have maybe one person who is able to conjure up a future from their imaginations. Strategy planning asks you to do just that; so how do you get strategy out of people who are not strategic?
Moving From Tactical To Strategic
For several years of my practice, getting past this block was a challenge. And then I thought of leading the team in a series of questions designed to make them think about what it is they do, why they do it and how their organization can change and grow. These questions are designed to help everyone identify what is working and what needs to be changed to put the organization over the top. These can be posed to the group in a couple of different ways. The first is to send them ahead of time, on-line. This is helpful if you have some people who don’t speak up in a group setting. Another way to ask them is up-front, in session. The advantage with in-session questioning is that it is dynamic and can engage people with each other. Here is a selection of some of the questions to pose when asking people to think out of the box:
- Why are you involved with this organization? What does it accomplish that makes you proud to be a part of it?
- If this organization didn’t exist, would you find another one like it that serves the same purpose? If so, which one? If not, which one? Why?
- Have you seen the organization change? If so, how? Is it better or worse?
- What is the most important thing we have to do to survive (besides raise money)?
- What is the most important thing we have to do to thrive?
- What is the one thing in our environment that affects us the most?
- What do we worry about that we shouldn’t?
- What don’t we worry about that we should?
- Who are our biggest advocates (who can help us)? Why? If we don’t have them, who should we nurture?
- What would be really exciting to be able to accomplish in the next 3 years? Stipulate money/donations/endowment up-front so you can move on to other issues… Everyone needs money.
While the answers to these questions are not necessarily all going to be used in the course of strategic planning, they get everyone thinking past the immediate. They ask people to take themselves out of the day-to-day and move into a more creative mindset. When done in a group, with the answers on-the-spot, people get to hear what their colleagues say as well. There are many more questions you can ask. Use these to start and, with your knowledge of the organization, come up with some on your own.
Once you have their heads in ‘the possible’ rather than the ‘now’, you can more easily move to visioning and theoretical future scenarios. People begin to think from a slightly wider perspective and are able to put the organization in a different light. This is useful not only for what is possible, but also from being able to predict threats and problems. Many an NFP have struggled because their boards failed to see threats that might have been obvious had they taken the time to think them through.
Strategic thinking is not an automatic for everyone but everyone can do it with some encouragement. The next time you are working with a board of directors who want to focus on who will be the sub-co-chair of next year’s silent auction, consider asking them to step out of their comfort zone.
You’ll be glad you did.