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It Takes a Village: Inclusive Engagement in Nonprofit Strategic Planning
Nonprofit organizations exist to improve the quality of life for others at a community, local, state, national, and even global level. Nonprofits strengthen communities and the services they provide contribute to economic stability and mobility.
The National Council of Nonprofits captures the importance and broad-reaching scope of nonprofits on its website:
America’s 1.3 million charitable nonprofits feed, heal, shelter, educate, inspire, enlighten, and nurture people of every age, gender, race, and socioeconomic status, from coast to coast, border to border, and beyond. They foster civic engagement and leadership, drive economic growth, and strengthen the fabric of our communities. Every single day.
To ensure that an organization stays true to its mission and the people it serves, it is crucial to create short-term and long-term goals through a strategic planning process. A well-designed strategic plan provides organizational direction, helps to set priorities, assists with budgeting and resource allocation, and improves overall organizational effectiveness, accountability, and decision-making. Given its scope, mission, and impact, an organization’s strategic planning process must be an inclusive process, engaging stakeholders such as clients and consumers, donors, volunteers, and community partners, along with staff and board members.
A recommended best practice is to hire an outside consulting firm to facilitate the process and serve as an external party to contribute diverse viewpoints and opinions. The consultant’s role is to help the board and staff evaluate or determine organizational priorities and establish goals, measurable objectives, and strategies while collecting input and feedback from both internal and external stakeholders.
Involving diverse stakeholders throughout the process helps to build trust and relationships between the organization and its beneficiaries. This best practice raises the voices of the traditionally marginalized or those excluded from programs that impact them. As John Bryson states in his book “Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations:
The ultimate end of strategic planning should not be rigid adherence to a particular process or the production of plans. Instead, strategic planning should promote wise strategic thought, action, and learning on behalf of an organization and its key stakeholders.
Best Practices for Engagement of External Stakeholders
In an article on stakeholder engagement in strategic planning, Tamela Spicer, Program Manager at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, shares that “you need to evaluate not only who can impact your success (positively or negatively), but also those that will be impacted by your work.”
External stakeholders should be identified collectively by staff and board members, with facilitation from a consultant. Identifying these stakeholders is a meaningful exercise to list significant contacts and ensure the staff and board members are on the same page about who could provide valuable feedback for the organization. Once identified, engagement with external stakeholders can take many forms. The most common are surveys, community listening sessions, focus groups, and one-on-one conversations.
External stakeholders that can provide valuable feedback for your organization are past program participants, volunteers, donors, government officials, and even parties considered “opponents.” To explain what an “opponent” means, Spicer gives the example of a city official who votes against every request submitted by a specific nonprofit because of a past relationship with a board member. She states, “Don’t underestimate the power of having your biggest opponent at the table in the planning process. Not only could their perspective be highly insightful, but it may provide the opportunity to redefine the relationship into one that can better serve your organization.”
Beneficiaries and other external stakeholders can provide direct feedback about your organization, like what they value, why they seek your services, why they participate with your nonprofit through donations, events, or volunteering, and what they would like to see in the future. Once the strategic plan has been developed and put into practice, you can then engage your external stakeholders again, showing them how their feedback mattered in the process and contributed directly to the plan and its implementation.
A consultant can help determine the best approaches to use depending on the type of stakeholder. Combined with the consultant’s guidance, use your institutional knowledge about the community and how they would best respond to a request for feedback to determine the best approaches. For example, if you’re trying to strengthen existing relationships or create new ones, perhaps with the city official “opponent” mentioned previously, in-person meetings can provide an opportunity to glean insights while building these connections. In another example, it would make more sense to engage with beneficiaries of a nonprofit dedicated to those experiencing homelessness through a visit to a shelter or meal center rather than an electronic survey since they may not have access to a computer or the internet.
Ensure the success of your nonprofit’s strategic plan by including all parties, internal and external, in your planning and evaluation process. Engagement with external stakeholders, especially beneficiaries, demonstrates that you value your community’s insight and that you are there to serve them.