“Open-Source Strategy” (Part 2): The Benefits of Engagement

At CEP, we have been engaged in a planning process since last fall, examining our record over the nine years we have existed and asking: what’s working, what’s not, and what should we start doing that we’re not doing today? There will be more in coming posts on the substance of this effort, but right now I want to discuss the process: specifically, how open and inclusive should we be in a planning process like this?

Largely because of the formative experiences I wrote about in my last post, I am predisposed to be open. Over the years, at CEP, we have made no secret of our plans or, for that matter, of our own assessments of our performance. We make public, on our website, all the studies we conduct or commission that relate to how CEP is perceived or how our research and tools are — or are not — being used to make change. And, of course, we have, for years, put our 990s and audited financials on our website as soon as they are final. (This seems like a given, but I am always shocked how many nonprofit organizations still don’t do this!)

So our planning process, which is focused on defining the organization’s direction for 2011-2014, has been an open and iterative one. That openness starts within the organization, among staff and board.

Our staff engaged our planning process through several all-day, all staff planning sessions as well as a two-day, off-site staff retreat. Why do we spend so much time in this way, taking staff away from their immediate work? Because, over our brief organizational history, we have seen that great ideas come from everyone, including from staff who are just a few months out of college. We foster the exchange of ideas and thinking about the organization and our mission through meetings and retreats – but also through simple technological platforms, such as Yammer, which we use for internal communication. I post and respond to posts on Yammer multiple times a day, often in exchanges with members of our staff who I don’t get much of a chance to work with directly.

With our Board of Directors, openness and engagement often means resisting the urge to feel we always need to come to meetings with clarity on exactly what we want. Instead, we involve board members at key moments in the interpretation of data and in brainstorming possible initiatives. At a two-day retreat in May, our Board — armed with new data we had gathered and analyzed about our performance and impact — took stock of the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, and areas of potential opportunity for greater contribution. We shared some thoughts with them but, mostly, my staff colleagues and I listened and sought to benefit from the Board’s engagement.

During the summer, my closest colleagues and I integrated board and staff thinking with our own and developed a complete draft of our Plan, which we shared with our Board for reaction at a meeting last month. We explicitly asked the Board not to act yet: we wanted their perspectives on the draft and the chance to make it better.

We also wanted to reach out to a broader group of leaders: we have just sent a draft of our Plan for CEP: 2011-2014 to our 30-member Advisory Board and invited feedback during one of a series of conference calls. Many of those on our Advisory Board are foundation leaders, but others are in leadership positions at organizations that some observers view as our “competitors.” I have been told it’s foolish to be so open with other organizations working in the same space. But I don’t think they want to take our ideas and implement them. If they do, and they can do it better than we can, more power to them. (I think.)

By December, we should be ready to ask the Board to approve the Plan. It will be stronger for all its iterations, all the feedback, and the thinking of what will be, by then, some 70 people who will have contributed. All in all, our planning process will have taken well over a year and lots of time and energy — even as we work day to day to implement initiatives we outlined in our last plan, which covered the 2008-2010 period. But I am convinced that this kind of process is well worth the time and energy it consumes.

In my next post, the drawbacks of openness.