Four Elements to Strengthen Your Planning

By Alexis Cooke, Senior Consultant

Organizations have been in constant flux to respond to 2020. Your organization likely implemented crisis response plans quickly after the onset of COVID-19. These response plans may have transitioned into scenario plans to navigate the ongoing crises of this year and/or your organization made substantial pivots or even pauses to your organization’s strategic plans. As the non-profit sector continues to respond to the devastating realities of the pandemic and our country’s social and racial injustices, The Alford Group elevates four specific elements that will strengthen your implementation and positioning for success, if embedded into your planning processes – crisis, scenario or strategic.

#1 Be Analytical

With so much we cannot control right now, one straightforward way to start is to consider and define what we have now and assess how we got here. The Alford Group encourages organizations to focus on the past and present in order to inform the vision for the future – whether organizationally or addressing a particular initiative.

It is critical to assess your mission-centered work and its relevancy. This is the time to figure out how to appropriately measure your impact if you do not already have the tools in place to do so effectively. Map that impact against what you know to be the evolving and probably increasing needs of the communities and/or constituents you serve.

In addition, assess your organization’s operations, staff and partners. Is your organization effectively allocating staff and budget resources to meet needs or fulfill your mission? Gather data points that are quantifiable and qualitative; perhaps conduct brief surveys and hold meetings or town halls for open dialogue and feedback. Consider the known barriers or challenges your organization has always faced or is facing now for the first time.

As you assess what is working, be transparent and honest about areas that have room for improvement and/or refinement based on the known “what’s” of the now, your true measured impact and what is needed to maximize future impact to fulfill your organization’s vision. This data can inform and drive business decisions, aspirational goals and fundraising strategies – amplify what will be maintained and grown and let go of what needs to be relinquished.

Very importantly, use your data to help set and/or project measurable outcomes that are realistic and appropriate motivated by all of your findings.

This is a time for both aspirational goal setting and realistic, immediate response. It may even be that your findings inform a refreshed mission statement, new vision and direction or realigned core values as your organization responds to the now.

Regardless of the outcomes, an analytical first step will help guide your organization’s approach and the timeline for implementing new goals and milestones.

#2 Be Timely

One way to center our work in reality is to create a time-focused framework that enables you to keep and maintain pace with milestones that are adaptive and relative, while moving your organization forward towards aspirational and achievable long-term vision and goals.

In a planning process – your assessment phase may be very quick and less refined like during emergency or crisis response planning where time is a critical factor to mission fulfillment work and a speedy response is paramount and your plan may take the form of a 30-60-90 day implementation plan.

You may be quickly transitioning up and through the plan by design in order to navigate this moment. If your analytical assessment informs outcomes based on multiple uncertainties or potential realities, then your timeline and scenario plan will be more fluid and adaptive to the varying outcomes and may span up to or over a year in length depending on the identified circumstances.

During strategic planning, your organization will be seeking the pathway towards achieving a long-term/big-picture goal through short and long term implementation steps, and the time needed to be analytical may be a substantial component of your strategic plan’s first year (to inform later action plans and strategies to reach goal).

The Alford Group encourages our partners to create 3-year strategic plans with inbuilt re-assessment points, rather than 5-year or longer plans in acknowledgement that (more so than ever these days) organizations need room to evolve and respond year-over-year, and success and growth can be hindered when an organization becomes beholden to an irrelevant strategic plan in year four or five of operationalizing their pre-set strategies.

#3 Be Authentic

In planning, an established acronym to guide goal setting is SMART, as in goals that are Specific, Measurable, Ambitious, Realistic and Timely. This year, we have seen the emergence of SMARTIE goals and The Alford Group agrees that we can no longer afford (as a society, sector or individually) to operate without Inclusion and Equity guiding our work.

Working toward social and racial justice is a journey. No single plan with well executed intentions is likely to redefine your organization as one that is anti-racist, for example. But, by leading authentically, setting strong goals and organizational vision that incorporates diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) -forward principles for yourselves and your colleagues, and consistently taking action (plan after plan) towards achieving your organization’s vision will strengthen your organization and mission-fulfillment efforts.

Your organization may consider an equity-forward assessment to help your organization identify current state and/or choose to engage experts and specialists to help guide you in this work.

Regardless, The Alford Group strongly encourages your organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion goals and impact be interwoven across all areas of planning – crisis, scenario or strategic. Short- and long-term plans have room for your organization to self-identify, define or redefine impact of DEI to and within your organization and set fresh measurable outcomes that lay the groundwork for and build upon your institutional journey.

There may be times where it is appropriate to elevate DEI as its own strategic pillar, but to be transformational and avoid becoming transactional in your DEI work, think of it as part of the culture of your organization’s overall operating approach and not a siloed entity.

#4 Be Inclusive

Inclusion is a key element in planning and there are many benefits to engaging stakeholders and constituents in your organization’s efforts to navigate a crisis, plan for multiple outcomes or set long-term aspirational goals. There is a lot of value-add when we work inclusively, and all forms of planning provide opportunities to engage various stakeholders – whether it be your  leadership, board members, donors, members, partners, community, founders, funders, advocates or social media followers.

You can use this phase as an engagement tool while gathering qualitative and quantitative data to inform trajectory, projections, vision from your constituents,  especially if your organization may not be one that seeks feedback and/or represents a top down decision making model.

Elevating staff voices at all levels so that the planning process is not in a leadership vacuum will in turn, create stakeholders of your staff; inspire and maintain buy-in for the long-term vision or short-term goals; and will validate  your organization’s starting place and, if effective, boost morale.

Your organization might consider conducting a SOAR analysis that focuses on Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations and Results to drive momentum forward. You could invite multiple participants to such an exercise, mixing and matching staff with board and/or community members for example. Other ways to invite feedback and participation may be through facilitated interviews or roundtables focused on specific areas of your emerging plan (either the outcomes or the process itself). You might also administer surveys – at the beginning to inform direction or towards the end of your planning process to affirm the emerged direction.

These four elements (analytical, timely, authentic and inclusive) work together and are not steps to be completed in order by design. When you are inclusive in your assessment phase – looking at past and present to inform your future – you will successfully elevate and capture diverse opinions. When you authentic in your planning, the resulting plan will be timelier and more relevant to the current operating environment.

When combined, these four elements are powerful in creating a plan that will strengthen your implementation and positioning for success.