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

By Rachel Roth

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. 


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.