Inclusive and Productive: How to Choose the Right Strategic Planning Committee

When developing a strategic plan for a nonprofit, Boost works in partnership with the organization’s Strategic Planning Committee, which often is comprised of key staff and Board members. Because this committee should understand, and have a role in major decisions about the organization’s mission, vision, strategic direction, programs, and services and provide feedback to Boost throughout each step of the strategic planning process, it is important that members meet a certain set of criteria. 

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These include:

1.     Ability, and willingness, to devote time to the strategic planning process. This may include time spent in Committee or Board meetings, group brainstorming sessions, and one-on-one interviews. Committee members will also need to review materials such as presentations and draft components of the plan before attending meetings to ensure that the committee can have full and informed discussion of agenda items. Individuals should be aware of the expected commitment of time and effort in advance.

2.     Representation from all areas of an organization. Since the best strategic plans incorporate multiple dimensions – the funding landscape, the needs of constituents, operational capacity, etc., it is important that the individuals involved in the planning process have a full understanding of each of these elements. Therefore, on the Strategic Planning Committee, there should be a cross-section of individuals from both staff and Board, as well as from various functional areas. While board members will lend their perspectives as financial and legal stewards for the organization, they also may be removed from day-to-day operations. Staff members fill this gap by contributing their understanding of an organization’s internal strengths and weaknesses, and could provide a balance to big ideas that board members may offer. Some Strategic Planning Committees also include a limited number of “outsiders,” such as a long-term funder, a contact at a government agency or office, or a leader from an affiliate organization. While “outsiders” may be able to add a different, and valuable, perspective, it is important that they know the organization very well. Otherwise, they may be a distraction to the process.

3.     Strategic orientation. While most strategic plans encompass an implementation component, the committee’s primary role is to contribute to strategy, not determine operations. Therefore, members should be capable of big-picture thinking and taking a longer-term view. Individuals whose thinking is too narrow, detail-oriented, or internal may prevent the organization from embracing ambitious ideas.

4.     Open-mindedness. During a strategic planning process, it is important to understand the view of many stakeholders – Board members, administrative staff, program staff, peers, competitors, experts, etc. Even if they have longstanding relationships with the organization, committee members should be open to changing things that have been done in the past and developing new ways of advancing the organization’s mission. Changing market forces, customers or clients, technology, public policy etc. may require the organization to embrace new ideas. As a result, individuals that demonstrate intolerance of new or challenging ideas should be considered with caution.

5.     Listening skills. Committees, in general, are more effective when there is good communication among members. Therefore, Strategic Planning Committee members should not only be active contributors to discussions but also should be active listeners to the thoughts of others. The ability to listen, and respond thoughtfully to what others are saying, is a critical component in ensuring that all voices are on the table and considered with adequate attention.

With this set of qualifications, the Strategic Planning Committee should be positioned for success.

We are often asked about the size of the committee. Here, there is no perfect formula. The committee should be large enough to be inclusive, but small enough to be productive. For instance, with more than 12-14 people in the room, many people need airtime. Therefore, the process tends to be driven by a subset of voices, which may result in less engagement as some people defer to the perspectives of others. On the other hand, a small committee may create the perception that decisions regarding the strategic plan are limited to a selective group of people at an organization. The process and the people should determine what size will create the best outcome.

Making Money with Mission: The Basics of Earned Income Ventures

Boost recently worked with a national organization to develop a business plan for a new earned income venture. For many organizations, earned income ventures can be a great way to generate revenue while advancing the nonprofit’s mission[1]. They can diversify an organization’s offerings, increase visibility, contribute to self-sufficiency, and unlike many grants, the money earned through earned income ventures is unrestricted, and can be used however the organization chooses. 

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Earned income ventures are not for every nonprofit though. There must be enough supply (at a cost that makes sense) and demand for the product or service provided through the venture. For instance, in order for a bakery that employs disabled people to be successful, there needs to be enough potential workers, with the right skills and interest in working there, as well as enough customers who are willing and able to pay for the baked goods. Similarly, a nonprofit moving company that raises funds for a substance abuse treatment program also depends on a skilled labor force (who may also happen to be program participants), and a large customer base. While it is time-consuming to do market research to determine competitors and customers, develop a business plan, and prepare financial projections, it is important to do these things to make sure that the venture is viable. 

Here are some other things to consider:

  1. There must be alignment between the earned income venture and the values and mission of the organization. The most attractive ventures both advance the nonprofit’s mission, and allow the organization to reduce their dependence on philanthropic donations.
  2. Organizations need the right human resources to execute the venture. This may entail hiring additional personnel with different skills and competencies than currently exists within the organization.
  3. Capital may be necessary to start-up the venture, requiring the organization to draw from reserves, get a loan from a bank, or raise funds from individuals, foundations, or corporations.
  4. A risk assessment should be conducted, and strategies to mitigate these risks should be identified, prior to launching the venture (many times, this is part of the business plan). 
  5. Since earned income ventures differ from traditional forms of philanthropy, the Board and staff should be educated about the new initiative and what the benefits are. Everyone should embrace an “entrepreneurial spirit” when designing the venture. 
  6. Pilot testing the product/service is important to ensure that it works, that there is a market for it, and that the resources it will take to develop it are not more than expected. Pilot testing also results in insight as to the challenges the new venture will face. 

Nonprofits need to remember that earned income ventures are meant to compete with other offerings, and therefore, the products or services that they are providing must be of appropriate quality, and priced competitively. And, nonprofits must continuously adapt to changing markets, providing products and services that are responsive to customer needs. These considerations, combined with the above, will help organizations develop earned income ventures that are positioned for success.   

[1] This blog post refers to nonprofit social ventures.  For-profit organizations can also have a social mission built into their business model but they differ from nonprofits in elements such as ownership, transparency, and profit distribution.

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