Since 2020, when COVID and a series of concurrent crises first disrupted our lives, Schultz & Williams has been leading a series of roundtable web discussions with CEOs of nonprofits, exploring their responses to the challenges they’ve faced. Our most recent session focused on the topic of strategic planning—an apt one since many organizations are now developing new plans or refreshing existing ones.

Specifically, we looked at strategic planning from a perspective that might have surprised us a few short years ago: We examined the central part that employee-focused initiatives now play as nonprofits map their future. Speaking from diverse perspectives, our guests argued that fulfilling your mission as a nonprofit these days requires prioritizing the individuals who bring that mission to life with a whole new degree of commitment and intentionality.

Those guests were Alison DiFlorio, Managing Partner, Human Capital Consulting, at Exude, a firm specializing in human resource strategies; Lauren Hansen-Flaschen, Strategic Planning Leader at Schultz & Williams; and Leslie Slingsby, Executive Director, Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center. Based in Montgomery County, PA, Mission Kids does invaluable work in preventing and treating child abuse. The organization also recently completed the process of strategic planning in partnership with Schultz & Williams.

I want to share a few of the ideas from our conversation I found particularly resonant. To appreciate the full scope of our discussion, I invite you to view the recording of the session in its entirety.

A New Set of Key Planning Issues

Clearly, it is impossible to talk about strategic planning and the ways it’s changing without addressing the multiple crises we’ve endured – spanning from public health, racial injustice, the economy, and our current political landscape. Without trying to sum up the impact of the interconnected traumas we are still struggling to escape, I would point out two clear truths, both highlighted in our Leadership Matters conversation. First, these recent crises have brought unprecedented uncertainty into our lives—an uncertainty which is the enemy of growth, a barrier to fundraising, and a perplexing challenge for anyone engaged in strategic planning. Second, the crises have taken an awful toll on the people who staff our nonprofits. They are stressed and exhausted. Some feel hopeless. Many have experienced a divisive and demoralizing distinction between team members who were deemed “essential” and kept their jobs, and “non-essential” peers who were laid off. What can that mean to someone who has dedicated their career to an organization’s mission?

It means that as many nonprofits move forward with strategic plans, several new priorities have emerged to command their attention. Along with the standard issues of succession planning and board development, marketing and fundraising, program enhancement and capital needs, these organizations are focusing more now than ever before on staff wellness and issues concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Speaking of her experience at Mission Kids, Leslie emphasized the clear need she saw to address mental health and self-care in order to support employees—folks engaged in the enormously taxing work of caring for abused children while interfacing with the child welfare and criminal justice systems. She also described the ongoing history of racial injustice within those systems and the urgency Mission Kids has felt to deeply engage in the work of DEI. “We are acutely aware that our staff does not represent the people we serve, and that the people we serve do not represent the larger community where we work.”

Allison explained that this focus at Mission Kids matches the experience of many organizations she works with at Exude. Some of these are two to three years into DEI initiatives. Others are just beginning. But all see the need to spotlight the priority of DEI—or, as Allison terms it, “DEI&B,” with the “B” standing for “belonging.” She says organizations have clearly realized, “You need the people behind the plans. That means you need to align your talent strategy with your strategic plans.”

Whereas recruiting, retaining, and motivating staff may once have merited a mere bullet in a subsection of a strategic plan, these goals are now a driving concern. Put another way, you could say that organizational culture has emerged as a key planning issue in and of itself. In my view, that’s entirely appropriate. As Peter Drucker famously pointed out, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Yet somehow, we’ve tended to overlook this fact when it comes time for strategic planning.

Drawing on her experience guiding organizations through strategic plans on behalf of S&W, Lauren says those days over. “Strategic planning has always been about asking and answering where we’ve been and where we are going, but now it considers another question too: ‘Who are we?’—and that question can be a critically important one to reach agreement on.”

A More Inclusive Process

It is important to understand that giving priority to people-focused issues when planning is not only a matter of the product—creating a different kind of strategic plan—but also of the process—creating that plan in a different way. All our session participants spoke to this point, emphasizing the need for a far more inclusive approach.

Lauren described an evolution in the planning process that S&W employs. “Its’ being intentional about the many voices you want to include, building a steering committee with representation beyond your Board, and reaching out to people who are in touch with the community you serve.” In addition, she lists focus groups, interviews, and surveys as useful ways of including further input from more stakeholders. She also stresses the need for transparency and active internal communications throughout the planning process.

This organizational work takes time and effort. Dealing with all the views people bring to the table can be a challenge, but it is most certainly worthwhile. First, the richness of views included is going to make for a stronger, better plan. Second, it’s going to make for a better implementation process. Remember, those people you are bringing to the table are the same individuals who will be responsible for executing your plan once it’s complete. Their ownership is vital.

Allison touched on similar themes as she discussed the strategies for human capital that her firm guides clients in applying, particularly in their work on DEI. This work demands intentionality, thoroughness, and rigor. It is not just about new tactics in recruiting, but an examination of every stage in the employee life cycle, from where you post jobs to how you create an onboarding process that fosters a sense of belonging. “Remember,” she says, “people decide in the first six months whether they are going to stay at an organization. They might not leave that fast, but they make up their mind.”

Compelling Benefits

As someone who has always believed in the value of strategic planning, I have to say our Leadership Matters discussion proved not only fascinating but affirming. It revealed that an effective plan can be more than a roadmap for your organization; it can be a tool for re-energizing your team and helping people get their confidence back. It can be not just useful, but inspirational.

As Leslie described Mission Kids’ recent experience, she highlighted this point. “At the start, we knew we were ready for a new strategic plan, but we were also exhausted and in crisis and not sure how to proceed. But we did, and it transformed us.”

The product of that effort was an exciting and ambitious strategic plan, and one of its most notable features is the importance it places on self-care for the members of the Mission Kids team. “We are not just saying people should take care of themselves, we are enticing them to,” Leslie explains—perfectly describing the kind of provision few plans included just a few years ago, but that more and more soon will.

As you ponder this and other take-aways from this stimulating discussion, I hope you will stay tuned for our next Leadership Matters webinar early in 2022. Plans are in the works for an exciting event!