“Bottom-Up” Approach to Strategic Planning

This post originally appeared on the Associated Grantmakers Blog

Take a moment to imagine yourself as the executive of a small nonprofit attending an information session with a major funder who has recently launched a new strategic plan. You’re anxiously awaiting word on how your nonprofit fits into this new plan, one with a racial justice lens, and you’re a bit overwhelmed by the proposition that this meeting could signal a drastic change to the partnership you’ve had with a long-standing funder and “partner.”

This fall, I and my colleagues at the Hyams Foundation planned several information sessions taking into account the experiences and concerns of current and future nonprofit staff eager to learn about the new strategic focus of the organization.

Our strategic planning process was quite extensive and used a “bottom-up” approach to hone in on many key aspects of our new direction. As an organization that aspires to be an ally and partner to community groups, we wanted to make sure that the organization is moving in a direction that correlates strongly with the on-the-ground work our grantees are doing.

I recall one session in which an individual representing a current grantee and likely applicant asked a question about whether or not a particular aspect of how he conducts grassroots leadership development was a fit with Hyams’s funding priorities. Before responding, Hyams staff took the opportunity to solicit views from others in the room. There followed a short exchange, where a range of leadership development methods were shared. Then, we responded that his approach could be a fit so long as it included additional types of grassroots leadership development activities.

This interchange shows the value of designing a meeting to be something other than a “top-down” exchange, with only one or two individuals (ones nominally holding power, by the way) driving the conversation. Engaging others in the room was a way to reinforce how much Hyams benefits from the ideas that are shared by its grantees, benefitting not only us but others doing the work on the ground who attended the information session. It was also a way to have organizational representatives, who may not otherwise have opportunities to share views with one another, to begin to learn about one another’s viewpoints.

So, we have the strategic plan and we’re excited to share it with others, but how do we do that? Here are a few lessons we learned from rolling out a new strategic plan:

  1. Schedule information sessions to give applicants, both old and new, an opportunity to learn more about your strategic plan and ask questions. It’s vital that we provide a safe space for grantees and potential applicants to ask questions and air concerns. So make sure that you’re in constant communication, soliciting feedback, and providing opportunities for two-way dialogue!
  2. Surveys are your friend! Remember to survey applicants after information sessions and the first grantmaking cycle under the new strategic plan to assess how clear the guidelines were and what the revised application process was like. The survey results will provide helpful feedback.
  3. Don’t forget that your revised application is a living document. As questions come up, you’ll need to update your application to address the need for clarification. Funders should be willing to be humble; never assume that because we understand our goals that everyone else does.  Ask if new applicants or long-term grantees need clarification or whether there’s a need for anecdotes or working examples of what you’re looking for or trying to accomplish. Growth is never linear and to ensure that we move forward, as a funder and as a partner, we must give ourselves the space we need to incorporate feedback into our documents over time. Reactions from the organizations that we fund, who do the work daily, will be instrumental in helping our strategic plans realize their full potentials.
  4. Repeat! Feel free to repeat this process until your staff is confident that your goals are solid, concise, and clearly communicated.

Angela Brown is director of programs at The Hyams Foundation in Boston. 

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