We all understand the importance of having a strategic plan to guide our organization – if you don’t know where you want to go, how are you going to get there? But how do you engage your board members in the process of planning, ensure they understand the importance of the strategic plan, and align resources behind it to ensure organizational success?
The first and most important step is to insist they participate in the planning process. Setting strategic goals for the organization is a key board responsibility and should be included in the commitment members sign when they join the board (and, best practice, renew annually). I recommend including attendance at the annual board retreat in the same section as attendance at board meetings – it is equally, if not more, important.
Occasionally a chief staff executive will say, “But it would be so much easier to write the plan myself and present it to the board!” The old adage “if they write it, they will underwrite it” applies here – by identifying and prioritizing efforts that are important to stakeholders, whether a specific industry group or broader business community, your board will have reason to provide the funding, manpower, and political influence needed to accomplish them.
Once the board has set meaningful priorities, they need to take ownership of their execution. Too often the board expects already overextended staff to take on new initiatives without added help. If an initiative isn’t important enough for a board member to “champion” to completion, then it shouldn’t be in the strategic plan. Staff should still be involved – there is as much danger in letting volunteers go rogue as allowing staff to operate without oversight – but neither should the plan be viewed as staff marching orders.
With board champions for each initiative, the organization should then build their volunteer structure – committees, task forces, short-term strike forces – around the program they want to achieve. If something isn’t important enough to be in your strategic plan, why waste volunteer and staff effort on it? This then provides reporting structure for board meetings: committee reports and action items can be aligned to the priorities in the strategic plan and specific timelines established. It is then up to board members to ask, and the board champion to explain, when goals are not met. This focus should also provide the board a clear basis for saying no to “wouldn’t it be nice ifs” as they arise in the face of already established priorities.
The final step in ensuring accountability is to assess accomplishments and determine priorities to carry into the next year. While most organizations will set a strategic plan spanning 3-5 years, an annual assessment ensures that the most important initiatives stay in front of the board for action, and that pressing new concerns are considered. It also allows an opportunity to celebrate the organization’s successes, reinforcing commitment to the organization and the plan.