I’ve been a part of dozens of board retreats (leader/observer participant), meetings and planning sessions in the last few years. A traditional strategic planning session lays out goals and actions but often fails to ask some really big driving questions.
WHAT IF… we asked these questions?
- What is our purpose or raison d’être? This is different from mission – which should be the same thing but usually ends up being more about ‘place in the world’ vs. purpose. Raison d’être literally means REASON FOR EXISTENCE. It’s the WHY question. If you can’t answer WHY, then WHAT and HOW are irrelevant.
- How can we (intentionally) go out of business? Is this for the short term (1000 days) or long term (50+ years). You exist to change lives, save lives or transform lives. How often do we re-examine our activities and ask, “Can we find a SOLUTION?” I started to qualify this question – to say that it might not apply to some organizations such as schools. Then, I withdrew my qualification. Ask it anyway; see where the conversation takes you. Education is changing.
- What would you do with $10M or $100M? Or pick a number that is a factor of 10x higher than anything you’re thinking about now. I recently attended a board retreat as a Board Member
for Road of Life Cancer Prevention For Kids. With $100M, one board Member said she would get laws changed to make health education mandatory at an earlier age and another said we should invest in longitudinal studies to understand how health prevention impacts kids.Those are two VERY DIFFERENT priorities and we aren’t doing either right now. Ultimately, the question helped to build consensus around focusing on EDUCATION. Until the question was asked, every debate was about incremental tactics, not Vision or even, I would argue, Strategy.
- What Strategic Partnerships can we pursue? You have finance committees, development committees, marketing committees, campaign committees. If anything, I would like to see a partnership committee. Better yet, just a commitment to partnerships as a core priority (DNA) of the organization. I haven’t seen the numbers in a while but there are somewhere in excess of 2 million nonprofits and many more socially focused businesses (all For Impact). Current structures and strategic planning questions focus on bloat, not partnerships. We’re all trying to make a difference, so let’s make a commitment (financial resources) to exploring this full time.
- How can we scale our Impact? Simple and open-ended… but not asked enough.
- What are we best in the world at? Jim Collins has made this conversation prevalent in the last few years (revisiting the Hedgehog Concept). It’s ultimately a question of priorities and focus. Consider finding the one thing you do very well and FOCUS on that. I can’t tell you how important this discussion is for your staff. It helps them make decisions about grants, programs, staffing, etc. Equally important is identifying those things that you’re not good at. Side note: I am a big Marcus Buckingam believer. He tells you to focus on your strengths. [Our strength at For Impact is live training, facilitating and coaching. We’re focusing on ways to do more of that.]
- Should we grow ‘wider’ or ‘deeper’? It’s a Scope of Services question. Ultimately a lot of ’strategic planning’ comes down to this question. Do we add more depth to our current programs (make them longer, more available, etc)? Or, do we expand our scope of services (diverse offerings, expanded continuum, etc.)? Refer back to question six to help you frame this debate.
- How much money do we need to achieve our vision? What usually happens: we spend time tweaking funding goals based on last year’s results. It would be of huge value [to everyone] if
we knew how much money we really needed to accomplish our Vision (annually or over time via a campaign initiative). Reflecting on this, I would say that this question is often asked in preparation for a campaign but it is not asked in relation to our operation (annual). Why not? Instead, we set a number and then allocate it (budget)… every year.
- What is our business model? What business are we in? I think this goes along with several other questions and relates to strengths, focus and priorities. It also adds clarity and could even become part of your message.
I think these questions would also SOLVE a lot of the problems I hear about every day:
- Board Engagement/Staff Communication: It works both ways.
- Board Meetings: If we’re on board about the big stuff it raises
the level of the conversation. I think a lot of the comments
I hear about Board Members being too detail focused or
staff members seeming unfocused is resolved when we can
communicate about and focus on the big picture.
- The Proverbial Rat Race: Incremental thinking gets
incremental results (some times).