The Nonprofit Strategic Plan Is Finished—Tools to Move Forward!
By Eugene Fram
The nonprofit’s 3 or 5-year strategic plan has been completed with the entire board management and staff reading from the same document. But what about the shoals that must be bridged before its benefits can be implemented? For example:
• How can the plan be kept in the forefront of board and management thinking as other problems, and crises must be resolved, opportunities addressed?
• The major of the committee that helped develop it will have rotated off the board in several years. What provision needs to be developed to fill the gap?
• Who will be the plan’s advocate should the CEO leave abruptly and the current board chair terms-out?
Following are my suggestions:
Endow Ownership: Hopefully the same CEO will be in place for the plan’s duration and can work with a series of board chairs to implement it But with varying nonprofit board rotation policies, some only allow the chair to hold office for a year, the plan’s institutional memory can be fragile. In addition, the CEO may be a person who is operationally satisfactory but just doesn’t do well strategically. Placing ownership can be a challenge. Example: I have encountered several boards with a total absence of directors with any serious strategic planning background.
Consider Appointing a Lead Director: Given how time consuming it is to serve as a nonprofit board chair, especially of a complicated organization like a university or hospital, it seems logical to empower another volunteer to formally fulfill some of the responsibilities expected of a board chair, especially relating to strategic development and implementation processes that seems to challenge both for-profit and nonprofit boards.
The use of such directors became a popular way to deal with the public concern about the for-profit boards after the Enron and other problems early in the century The New York Stock Exchange enshrined the idea of lead directors as a way to show that a company must give the independent directors a central voice.
A lead director can assist the chair in the day-to-day needs of leading a board (while not micromanaging) and assist in rehabilitating a dysfunctional board. (bit.ly/15s4eVv) This is especially important when the chair has little management or board experience. (Example: a concert pianist chairs a social-services board.) It is also not unusual for a volunteer board chair to discover that the duties are more time consuming than they expected. Typically, they muddle along. Even the most tactful CEO would hesitate to address the gap.
At first glance, adding a lead director to the structure of a nonprofit board seems to formalize a new position in a way that could impede the relationship among the chair, the vice chair, CEO and other board members.
The lead director should be viewed as just the opposite, as the business world has demonstrated. H/s can help the CEO work more effectively and efficiently with board committees, especially in driving the work of the strategic-planning groups and assessing outcomes and impacts.
What’s more, the lead director can be an additional consultant or mentor to the CEO, especially when the board chair is unavailable. Because the lead director would help the board operate better, this move could also do much to build morale in nonprofit groups.
Agenda Time: Make certain most every board meeting agenda has time for updates of outcomes and impacts of the plan. Strategic planning and implementation usually do not have the appeal of more immediate challenges, unless the organization has serious problems. Unfortunately, the plan is not given priority location on the agenda.
Board Retreats: Retreats are frequently used to get all groups together, many who have not been involved with the work of the strategic planning committee. I recently observed one retreat that brought the board, management and staff together to develop a significant consensus about the need to “reinvent” the nonprofit. In my opinion, a similar small-scale retreat needs to take place after about six months to help keep the board’s focus on strategy.
Summary: Strategic plans are only of value if the board, on a consistent basis, carefully overviews their implementations and visionary directors and managers take ownership of it. Tools to accomplish this goal are readily available if a board wants a robust implementation.