Most leaders of nonprofit organizations would agree that there are never enough hours in the day to get their work done. And so the idea of committing a significant amount of time, money and energy to developing a strategic plan is often regarded, at best, as a necessary evil. This is even more so the case for organizations that begrudgingly complete a plan only to satisfy the Board, and then simply stash the plan on a bookshelf to gather dust. With more and more accrediting bodies like the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) requiring a strategic plan for full approval, creating a strategic plan may be viewed as just another hurdle to jump. This type of mindset and approach to strategic planning is really too bad—such a missed opportunity and a waste of resources!

From Schultz &Williams’s (S&W) experience with our clients, developing a strategic plan provides a comprehensive guide for an organization to follow that’s based on well-considered goals and priorities.

But that’s not all; we have found that the very process of developing a plan provides valuable opportunities for an organization to share institutional knowledge, build collegial relationships, identify strong staff skills, and set ambitious goals that are based on staff input and have the staff’s buy-in.

A Strategic Plan at Work: The Birmingham Zoo

To test our thinking about the value and usefulness of strategic plans, we decided to check in with the Birmingham Zoo about a year after the completion of their three-year strategic plan.

One interesting aspect of this project was that the Birmingham Zoo undertook this critical process with the knowledge that Dr. Bill Foster, its long-time president and CEO, would be retiring in the near future. Chris Pfefferkorn, who was senior vice president at the time, was ultimately named Dr. Foster’s successor. Chris’s direct and active involvement throughout the entire strategic planning process helped to ensure a smooth and focused leadership transition.   

An Actionable Guide

The most important feature of the strategic plan for the Birmingham Zoo is that the plan is actionable. It is a living, actively utilized and regularly updated plan that guides decision-making and promotes accountability across the organization.

Not only has the plan changed the way the Zoo approaches opportunities and manages its direction, it has also really transformed the staff’s ability to think strategically for the better.

Chris and the Birmingham Zoo are utilizing their strategic plan on a regular basis as:

A Hiring/HR Tool
The Board utilized the strategic plan in developing the new contract for Chris. They set the benchmark goals for the new president and CEO against the priorities established in the strategic plan, which were developed with the full involvement and endorsement of Chris and the staff.

The staff managers are working with the human resources team to utilize the strategic plan’s goals and objectives as a framework for performance reviews. It is very important at the Birmingham Zoo that each person, no matter the department, understands they all have a role to play in achieving every one of the strategic goals.

• A Quarterly Management Tool
The staff digs deeper into the plan every three months and breaks up the goals and priorities into quarterly segments. Based on emerging situations or time constraints, the staff may adjust the quarterly goals in the short-term to ensure long-term success.

“The strategic plan is utterly worthless if the goals are not tied to specific actions that are achievable in the timeframe that is established.” —Chris Pfefferkorn, President & CEO, Birmingham Zoo

A Board Communication Tool
Chris uses the strategic plan and the resultant quarterly goals as the framework for his updates to the Board and expects his senior leadership team to remain accountable for their departments’ progress against the goals mandated in the strategic plan. This system provides quantifiable reporting on current status, thus allowing the Board to stay engaged with the strategic issues facing the Zoo.

A Focusing Tool
When new ideas are proposed, the leadership team assesses them based on how they relate to the priorities established in the strategic plan, helping to maintain focus and minimize distraction.

“We like to encourage staff participation in generating new ideas, and everyone knows that suggestions must relate to the plan and advance one of our stated goals. This helps us keep our eyes on the prize and continually move forward.” —Chris Pfefferkorn, President & CEO, Birmingham Zoo

A Transition Tool
The strategic plan was particularly useful for Chris as the new president and CEO. The existence of the plan and the process that led to its creation enabled Chris to hit the ground running as the new director. Even though the plan is fluid and dynamic, it provided the overall direction and necessary steps for maintaining focus, building on momentum, and establishing clear priorities—incredibly important any time, but especially during a leadership transition.

“I was able to jump right in after the leadership change with full confidence that the entire staff was on board with the Zoo’s strategic direction and priorities and was actively engaged in making it happen.” —Chris Pfefferkorn, President & CEO, Birmingham Zoo

The Benefits of the Planning Process

While the time, energy and resources involved in developing a strategic plan may seem daunting at first, the Birmingham Zoo found that making the process as inclusive as possible drew the entire organization together in pursuit of shared goals. Throughout the planning process, the staff was actively involved and had a voice in the creation of priorities and strategies. The staff also contributed to defining the timeline based on personal knowledge of the work required. This kind of buy-in leads to an engaged and motivated staff with a full understanding of the role it plays in achieving the organization’s goals.

Broader Lessons from Birmingham Zoo’s Experience

One key lesson learned from our work with Chris and the Birmingham Zoo that holds true for all nonprofit organizations is the importance of setting the stage from the outset. It is imperative that the entire staff understands what a strategic plan is, how it will be used, and what it means for the organization. Upfront education and discussion should set the tone for the entire strategic planning process. Whether by an outside consultant or existing internal leadership, attention must be paid to explaining the planning process and the staff’s role.

Additionally, all staff members must be involved in the process at some point along the way. Bringing together people from different areas of an organization—for example, from education, marketing, operations and development—can inject new energy into the planning process with a diversity of thinking and perspectives represented and heard. This kind of inclusivity also ensures realistic thinking in terms of what it takes to get things done.

In the end, a confident and empowered leader can use the strategic plan to provide direction, focus and benchmarks for an engaged staff and promote accountability across the organization, starting at the top.

Keys to Success
• Engage in upfront education with the entire staff on the nature and purpose of strategic planning and how the process works.
• Keep the strategic plan top-of-mind during staff meetings and make sure everyone has access to it.
• Use the strategic plan as a framework to create job descriptions, performance evaluations and Board reports.
• Communicate achievement of goals as well as updates and alterations to the plan to the staff.