The Board Role in Strategic Thinking and Planning
Why do boards need to think and plan strategically? Simply put, because it is
at the very core of effective board governance. Board directors need to think
and plan strategically because they are leading nonprofit organizations through
one of the most turbulent periods of change in our history. This leadership
imperative reinforces the need for the board of directors to focus on critical
issues and policy challenges vs. administrative details and programmatic
In this article, we will focus on two areas:
- A basic orientation to the strategic planning process, and
- The need to think strategically on an ongoing basis outside of the
formal strategic planning process.
Letís start with a brief discussion of strategic planning. The purpose of
strategic planning is to develop a three to five year blueprint for the
organizationís future. Strategic planning is a way to help an organization
be more productive by helping guide the allocation of resources in order to
More and more nonprofits are doing strategic planning because they understand
that it is a must in today's fast changing environment. And they are seeing a
number of important benefits including:
- Determination of a clear sense of future direction and focus.
- Improvements in program and service delivery.
- Enhanced marketing efforts.
- Increased volunteering and membership involvement; and,
- More effective fundraising.
According to Brian W. Barry, author of Strategic Planning Workbook for
Nonprofit Organizations, strategic planning usually involves fundamental choices
- The mission, goals, or vision your organization will pursue.
- Whom you will serve.
- The organization's role in the community.
- The kinds of programming, services or products you will offer.
- The resources needed to succeed -- people, money, expertise,
relationships, facilities, and so forth.
- How you can best combine these resources, programming and relationships to
accomplish your organizationís mission.
Sometimes "Strategic planning" is confused with "long-range planning" and
operational planning". They are different. There are two things in particular
that distinguish strategic planning from planning which is merely long-range in
nature and from operational planning typically done on an annual basis:
- The first is the attention paid to changes in the external environment,
for example, fundraising trends or political and regulatory changes; also
changes in the needs and service expectations of our customers, funders and
- The second difference is the focus in strategic planning on developing a
shared vision of the future, and the way this shared vision of future success
drives the rest of the planning process.
Now, letís talk more about the role of the board in strategic planning.
As we have said, the purpose of strategic planning is to develop a three to
five year blueprint for the nonprofitís future. The board has a critical role to
play. Because the board of directors assumes a large share of the responsibility
for the success of the nonprofit, it must provide the critical link between the
nonprofit and the outside environment in which the organization functions. It
must also ensure that the nonprofit reaches the community it intends to serve,
and effectively serves the needs of its constituents. To fulfill this function,
the board should help the executive director to establish a strategic planning
process, should participate in the process, and should approve the final
Richard Ingram, author of Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards,
states that the boardís first responsibility is to determine the nonprofitís
mission and purpose. Clarifying the mission of the nonprofit is a critical part
of strategic planning. The board must work with the executive director to
formulate, and periodically update, the nonprofit's mission and decide whether
particular programs and services fall within its expressed mission. The mission
statement should define why the nonprofit exists. It should clearly articulate
the nonprofit's main purpose and values, and identify the beneficiaries of its
programs and services.
A good mission statement articulates the overall goal of the nonprofit to
everyone inside and outside the organization. It is used to guide strategic,
long-term planning and helps to keep the school focused during both smooth and
turbulent times. The absence of a mission statement, or having one that is
unclear, may cause confusion inside the nonprofit as it faces various
challenges, or it may result in inappropriate decisions. For a mission statement
to be useful, it should be reviewed periodically to ensure that it reflects the
current environment in which the nonprofit operates and the changing needs of
the people it serves. This is particularly important for nonprofits because of
the uncertain political and economic environments in which they operate.
The board and executive director should work together in developing the
strategic planning process and provide guidance and input to the plan. The board
can be particularly effective in providing and analyzing information about the
external environment, current trends in social policy, or new financial
opportunities. Because strategic planning takes time and effort, several
sessions will need to be scheduled to complete all the strategic planning steps,
including gathering information, discussing current and proposed programs and
services, projecting the financial resources that would be needed to implement
various programs, prioritizing programs, and finalizing the plan. The board must
formally approve the final plan, be committed to it, and support its
Steps of the Strategic Planning Process
Now, let look more closely at the steps of the Strategic Planning Process. A
strategic plan includes five levels:
- Objectives (Annual plans of action).
Now letís talk about the main steps of the strategic planning process in more
Step 1 - Gathering and Analyzing Information
The first step is Gathering and Analyzing Information. This step consists of
three components: an external assessment, a market or constituent assessment and
an internal assessment.
The purpose of the external assessment is to identify and assess changes and
trends in the world around the nonprofit likely to have a significant impact on
it over the next 5-10 years. We look at political, economic, technological,
social, lifestyle, demographic, competitive, regulatory and broad philanthropic
trends. We then determine which changes are opportunities for us (for example,
opportunities to grow) and which could be threats to us in some way (trends that
can keep us from being successful). Finally we identify implications for
selected changes and trends -- ways the nonprofit might respond to the
opportunities and threats we identify. At this early stage of the planning
process, saying that something is an implication does not require the nonprofit
to adopt that course of action. The external assessment is sometimes referred to
as the "environmental scan."
Here is an example of external assessment findings for a nonprofit involved
in education reform:
One trend was increased interest in supporting school reform and change
efforts by foundations serving needs of low-income children and families. The
implication: Tap this new source of funding for the nonprofit. Another trend was
Increased poverty impedes educational achievement. The implication: promote
family support programs at schools to address needs of low-income families. A
third trend was the proliferation of web-based learning resources. The
implication: Increase Internet access for educators, students and parents.
The next component of the information gathering and analysis step is the
constituent or market assessment. The purpose of the constituent assessment is
to identify and assess changes in the needs and perceptions of the nonprofit's
markets and constituencies. For most nonprofits, these include customers,
volunteers, funders, donors, volunteers, paid staff, board directors,
collaborators, and competitors.
The market assessment attempts to answer the following questions:
Who are the nonprofit's key markets and constituents?
What are the current needs, perceptions, and service expectations of each
What are the emerging market trends?
What are the implications for the nonprofit -- how should the nonprofit
respond to these changes and trends among its constituents and markets?
Examples of market assessment findings from our education reform organization
62% of parents of children enrolled in local schools desire before and
after school care for their children.
Two-thirds of the volunteers say they would be willing to get involved in
fund-raising for the nonprofit but would require training.
The other component of the information gathering and analysis step is the
internal assessment. The purpose of the internal assessment is to assess
internal structure, process and operations of the nonprofit and based on this
assessment, to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. Areas examined include
nonprofit personnel, both paid and volunteer, fund-raising, physical facilities,
equipment, use of technology, location, financial condition, management
practices, board governance, programs, products and services, market position,
and other factors.
From an affordable housing development organization, the following internal
strengths were highlighted:
- Excellent staff -- competent and experienced.
- Availability of unrestricted working funds.
- Effective in delivering technical assistance to nonprofits.
- Track record -- we are known with a good reputation.
The following internal weaknesses were identified:
- Current financing programs represent an internal strain on the
- Lack of strategic focus.
- Current sources of revenue limit what we can consider
Step 2 - Identification Of Critical Strategic Issues, Choices And Challenges
The second step in the planning process is identification of critical
strategic issues, choices and challenges facing the nonprofit. Critical issues
are fundamental policy or program concerns that define the most important
situations and choices a nonprofit faces now and in the future. Critical issues
can reflect long-standing problems in the nonprofit, the community served or
recent events that are anticipated to have a significant impact on the nonprofit
and/or community served. Critical issues can also reflect major shifts in
thinking that challenge "business as usual." The selection of issues is
important because it determines range of decisions the nonprofit will consider
in the future.
In some instances, the nonprofit is already aware of the critical issues that
the strategic planning process must help it address. In most situations, the
planning process participants discern critical strategic issues as they work on
the external, market and internal assessments.
In developing the actual wording of the critical issue statements, it's
helpful to reflect on the following information drawn from the earlier external,
market and internal assessments:
The external changes and trends having the greatest positive and/or negative
impact on the nonprofit . . . Major changes and trends in the needs, perceptions
and service expectations of our markets and constituencies . . . Internal
strengths and weaknesses of the nonprofit that will seem to have an impact on
the nonprofitís future success.
Here are some examples of critical issues from an affordable housing
What should the balance be between the Affordable Housing Alliance's role
as an independent developer versus a provider of technical assistance on
How should the Affordable Housing Alliance diversify its revenue base?
Should the Affordable Housing Alliance expand its advocacy and education
roles in support of affordable housing?
How can we forge strategic alliances with the private sector to advance the
Affordable Housing Allianceís mission?
Step 3 - Development Of A Strategic Vision Statement
The third step in the planning process is development of a strategic vision
statement. The vision statement describes what we want the nonprofit to look
like in ideal terms in the future - the results we will be achieving and
characteristics the nonprofit will need to possess in order to achieve those
results. The strategic vision statement provides direction and inspiration for
Through the vision statement, the nonprofit describes how it intends to
respond to the major challenges expressed in the form of critical strategic
(PLEASE NOTE: Although the words "mission" and "vision" are used
interchangeably, they are distinct in an important way: Mission describes
"fundamental purpose"; Vision conveys a sense of "future direction."
Here is an example of a vision statement from the Affordable Housing
The Alliance is a recognized statewide and national leader in the development
of affordable housing opportunities. We are a bridge linking public, private and
nonprofit resources. Success in achieving our agenda is built on financial
strength and strong coalitions.
Step 4 - Development Of A Mission Statement
The fourth step in the planning process is development of a mission
statement. The mission statement is a broad description of what we do, with/for
whom we do it, our distinctive competence, and WHY we do it (our ultimate end).
If a mission statement already exists, the focus of this step is on reviewing
it in light of the emerging vision statement and if necessary revising the
language. Here are some questions that can aid in the review of an
already-existing mission statement:
Questions for a Critical Review of an Existing Mission
- Is the mission statement clear and on target in today's
- Do you have any specific questions or concerns with respect to the
- Does the mission statement duplicate the mission of any other school?
If so, what should we do about it?
- Considering the answers to these questions, how, if at all, should
the mission statement be changed?
Here is an example of a mission statement from the Affordable Housing
We provide leadership to expand access to housing opportunities through
partnerships among the public, nonprofit and private sectors to create and
sustain strong neighborhoods and communities.
Step 5 - Development Of Strategic Goal Statements
The fifth step in the planning process is development of strategic goal
statements consistent with the vision statement. Strategic goals are broad
statements of what the nonprofit hopes to achieve in the next 3 years. Goals
focus on outcomes or results and are qualitative in nature. Often goal
statements flow from some of the critical issue statements developed earlier in
the planning process.
Here are some examples of goals for the Affordable Housing Alliance:
- Achieve a balance between the Allianceís role as an independent developer
and its role as provider of technical assistance on housing development.
- Expand and diversify our revenue base in order to support anticipated
- Forge strategic alliances with the private sector to advance the Alliance's
Step 6 - Development Of Strategies For Each Goal
The sixth step in the planning process is development of strategies for each
goal. Strategies are statements of major approach or method for attaining goals
and resolving specific issues. Ideas for strategy emerge from the earlier
internal, external and market assessments, -- especially the strengths and
weaknesses identified in the internal assessment as well as the implications
statements developed as part of the market and external assessments. A strategy
is judged potentially effective if it does one or more of the following:
- Takes advantage of environmental opportunities
- Defends against environmental threats
- Leverages organizational competencies
- Corrects organizational shortcomings
- Offers some basis for future competitive advantage
- Counteracts forces eroding current competitive position
Here are examples of strategies for our sample goal: Expand and diversify our
revenue base in order to support anticipated growth.
- The first strategy; Generate revenue from special events.
- The second strategy: Increase funding from public sources.
- The third strategy: Expand individual giving from major donors.
Step 7 - Development Of Annual Objectives
The seventh step is development of annual objectives. The purpose of this
step is to formulate objectives consistent with the goals and strategies of the
strategic plan. Objectives are specific, concrete, measurable statements of what
will be done to achieve a goal generally within a one-year time frame.
Objectives include answers to the following questions: Who, will accomplish
what, by when, and how will we measure the outcomes or results of the activity.
Put another way, objectives should be "SMART" --Specific, Measurable,
Ambitious but Attainable, Relevant (contributing to the
nonprofitís vision), and Time-based (we'll do X over the next Y years).
Strictly speaking, annual objectives are not part of the Strategic Plan of an
organization. Objectives are the core of the nonprofitís Annual Operational Plan
that is based on the strategic plan itself. The planning process will also
address the costs associated with implementing objectives. This information will
be utilized in the development of budgets.
Here are some examples of objectives for our sample goal and strategy:
- Again, the sample goal is: Expand and diversify the revenue base in order
to support anticipated growth.
- The sample strategy: Generate revenue from special events.
- A sample objective: The Board will establish a Fund Development Committee
consisting of at least 8 board and non-board directors and provide training
in special events fund raising by July of year 1 of the strategic plan.
- And other sample objective: The Fund Development Committee will generate
at least $150,000 from no more than 3 special events by July of year 2 of
the strategic plan.
Itís helpful to think of strategic planning as a journey. Imagine your
organization as a sailboat at sea. . . at the mercy of ever-changing
conditions - ocean currents and winds. Now think of planning as a journey
through sometimes-rough waters to a destination we have determined. Strategic
Planning is how we determine the destination and how we get there.
If planning is a journey, the first two steps of the process - information
gathering and analysis and identifying strategic issues tell us where we are.
The next step - Developing a Vision - helps us determine the destination. And
Mission - reminds us why we're on the journey in the first place. We get to the
vision through the accomplishment of goals. We accomplish our goals by means of
the strategies we devise for each goal. Finally, we translate goals and
strategies into concrete action through development of objectives.
If you would like additional information about the steps of the strategic
planning process, contact us at
Effective Strategic Planning Practice
Strategic planning in nonprofits is most effective when the following
elements are present:
nonprofit board is serious about strategic planning (and it needs to be!), it
will establish a strategic planning committee. Here is a sample description
for a board strategic planning committee job description. (hyperlink)
Second, there needs to be a thorough and shared understanding of strategic
planning. The term "strategic planning" is sometimes used to describe a
range of planning activities. It is important that the process is looked upon
in the same way by board, staff and other participants in the nonprofit
strategic planning process.There also needs to be agreement on outcomes. While it is true that the
expected outcome of most strategic planning processes is a strategic plan
document, it is also important to discuss and eventually agree upon other
expected outcomes. For example there may be a specific critical issue that the
board wants to focus on by means of strategic planning. Typically, planning
outcomes will include some or all of the following:
- First, establishment of a strategic planning committee.
- Board leadership and management staff will have a thorough understanding
of the critical issues and choices facing the organization over the next 5
- A strategic plan document including a mission statement, strategic vision
statement, goals and strategies will be produced. The plan will give special
attention to organizational structures that will best support the overall
- The strategic plan will have a day-to-day relevance on management and
- There will be enthusiasm and support for the strategic plan at all levels
of the organization.
- There needs to be real commitment to the process on the part of
leadership. While there is no one right way to do strategic planning,
whatever approach the board chooses will involve time, energy and careful
thinking. People will not commit these personal and organizational resources
if they are not convinced that the planning process is worth the effort.
Sometimes the start of strategic planning process may need to be postponed
until leadership within the board and staff have become convinced of the
importance of the process.
- There also needs to be involvement of many. In order to be
effective, strategic planning must involve individuals representing all
constituencies of the nonprofit: staff, constituents, funders and donors, as
well as other key community supporters.
- Finally, the strategic plan needs to be translated into
concrete detailed plans of action. Involvement in an isolated strategic
planning exercise or a one shot planning retreat is not sufficient. Strategic
planning needs to lead to specific objectives which include clear evaluation
measures, set on an annual basis by staff, the board of directors and the
boardís own committees. This commitment to implementation will also help to
ensure that the majority of the boardís time and energy is in alignment with
the mission, vision, and goals and strategies contained in the strategic plan.
These foregoing practices will help to assure that the
strategic plan does not end up on a shelf. To avoid this, look for other ways to
keep your strategic plan visible. Once the strategic plan has been developed,
nonprofit leaders need to take steps ensure that the plan becomes a guiding
force for the nonprofit Ė a living strategic plan. United Way of America offers
the following techniques for publicizing your strategic plan and maintaining
enthusiastic support for it among key internal and external constituents of the
- Develop a recognizable theme that signifies the plan's essential thrust.
This may be graphically represented by a logo or some other visually
attractive means. One nonprofit working with at-risk youth adopted the theme
- Publicize brief summaries of the plan and how your nonprofit will use it.
- Look for opportunities to refer to the strategic plan in meetings,
newsletters, websites, or news releases.
- Create a slide or video show summarizing the plan and its proposed
- Seek major media coverage when important milestones in the plan are
reached. A press conference with graphics and charts summarizing the plan
can be effective.
- Use the strategic plan as a living document at nonprofit board meetings.
Keep it visible and refer to it regularly.
- Use retreats and mini-conferences to continue to build buy-in among other
agencies and community groups. Make sure that this is an interactive
process, one that listens as well as talks.
- Create a speaker's bureau to take the strategic plan to specific target
groups: the county board, the city council, parent groups, the chamber of
commerce, community and business leaders, and nonprofit agencies, for
- Create poster-size versions of your mission and strategic vision
statement and display them throughout the facilities Ė in meeting rooms, at
the front door, etc.
Strategic Thinking Ė Not Just During The Strategic Planning Process
In addition to the boardís commitment to engage in the formal strategic
planning process on a periodic basis, it is vital that the leadership of the
board think strategically on an ongoing basis. Letís talk now about what can be
done to make this happen.
Thinking and Acting Strategically: Encouraging Visionary Board Leadership
The rapid pace of change in America, in local communities and in the
nonprofit sector requires that boards look and act differently from traditional
boards. Some forward thinking nonprofit boards are already adopting a new
approach. They provide a new profile of nonprofit boards, from which we can all
learn useful lessons
The new nonprofit board leaders have the following eight qualities:
- They are
visionary and future focused, spending most of their
decision-making time looking forward.
possess an entrepreneurial spirit, understanding that their
organizations operate in a fast changing marketplace seeking products and
services to meet emerging customer needs.
- The new board leaders are risk takers, balancing the need to take
chances with the traditional stewardship responsibilities of board service.
- They are good communicators, understanding the importance of
effective communication at all levels and they organize the board and its
- They are systems thinkers seeking to understand the root causes and
forces that shape the issues and challenges they will face in the boardroom.
They look for courses of action that will exert the highest possible leverage
as they respond to those issues.
- In the new board, leaders also look for creative ways to connect their
organizations to the world around them, exploring and imagining new forms
of partnership and alliances that will support their mission and advance
in their strategic plan.
- The new board's leaders also have a deep appreciation of the strength of
diversity, understanding that diversity helps to assure a higher level of
responsiveness to customers and also promotes creativity, innovation and
- They are committed to building a learning organization,
realizing that board effectiveness and overall nonprofit effectiveness will be
greatly enhanced if there are systems, practices and structures in place that
make it easier rather than harder to learn on an individual and organizational
These attributes position nonprofit board leaders to exercise a visionary
leadership style. Barriers, however, may get in the way. There are a number of
factors that prevent boards from exercising the kind of visionary leadership
described above. Taken together, these factors provide a checklist for assessing
your board and identifying areas to target for improvement. Examining these
barriers to visionary board leadership can be the first step in revitalizing an
existing board or building a powerful nonprofit board from scratch. Let's look
at some of them now:
In order to play a visionary leadership
role, board directors need the time to attend meetings, read materials and
maintain contact with each other in between meetings. This puts pressure on
the board to do everything it can to organize for maximum effectiveness and
avoid wasting time on trivial matters.
Second, avoidance of risk-taking. In order to be innovative and
creative in its decision-making, nonprofit boards must be willing to take
chances, to try new approaches, to take risks. In fact innovation and
risk-taking are fundamental premises of the nonprofit movement. Risk-taking,
however, flies in the face of the traditional wisdom about board director
stewardship responsibilities. Success in new educational and other
programmatic ventures is never guaranteed. Boards need to acknowledge this
tension point and discuss it with the charter authorizing body, parents,
funders, donors and other key supporters. Board leaders must strike a balance
between taking chances and maintaining their traditional stewardship role.
A third barrier would be lack of board involvement in strategic planning.
More than any other activity, strategic planning offers boards an opportunity
to think about changes and trends that will have significant impact on the
nonprofit and devise strategies to effectively respond to challenges. This
opportunity to reflect together on the big questions facing the nonprofit
provides new vision and a sense of future direction as well as the energy to
move forward. Some boards are not involved in strategic planning at all. Some
are involved but only superficially. When this happens, the board loses an
important opportunity to develop and exercise its visionary leadership skills.
Another barrier is lack of knowledge in an increasingly complex world.
The world is much more complex today for most organizations, especially
nonprofits. Busy board directors frequently lack a deep understanding of
critical changes, trends and developments that challenge fundamental
assumptions about how a nonprofit defines its work and what success looks
like. We see this shift most dramatically in the areas of health, education
and welfare. Often, this lack of knowledge results in a lack of confidence on
the part of the board to act decisively and authoritatively.
The tendency to micro-management is another obstacle to visionary board
leadership. Recently the city council of a major American city spent
almost an entire meeting deciding what color to paint the new stadium seats.
Practically all of us have hair-raising stories about boards that spent untold
hours discussing trivial subjects while neglecting major agenda items
deserving their more careful deliberation. It is critical that the board
focuses its attention on items of critical importance to the nonprofit. In
order to do this, the board must avoid the temptation to micro-manage or
meddle in lesser matters or in areas that are more appropriately handled by
the staff or committees of the board. As we pointed out in first program of
the audioarticle series, the average board, meeting monthly for two hours, has
approximately 24 hours of meeting time per year to make all of the major
decisions as well as address new critical issues that emerge from time to
time. It is simply impossible to do an effective job with in those 24 hours of
meeting time, even if only a few hours are wasted on trivia. In addition, a
habit of board micro-management can adversely affect the morale of staff and
the board's own committees as well.Another barrier is the habit of holding on to the old ways. In their
book, The Accelerating Organization, authors Maira and Scott-Morgan
state that one principle of scientists have observed in natural systems is the
continuous shedding of operating rules that cease to be relevant because of
changing environmental conditions. Organizations, they surmise, "can hold only
a small number of rules and operations at anytime so they must have the
ability to shed old rules to make room for the new. Shedding becomes more
complicated in systems involving human beings, because their sense of self
worth is often attached to many old rules." This all-too-human tendency to
hold on to what we know can prevent boards from considering and pursuing new
opportunities that conflict with some of the old rules that persist, even in a
- First, a shortage of time.
- Yet another barrier is lack of clarity regarding board-staff roles and
relationships. Sometimes boards assume that it's the job of the executive
director to do the visionary thinking. While boards rightly expect the
executive director to be visionary and decisive, this doesn't mean that the
board sits and waits for direction and inspiration. This lack of clarity can
result in boards that don't exercise visionary leadership because they don't
think it's their job.
- Finally, leaders didn't have to be visionary in a less-competitive past.
Time was when constituents and consumers would just walk in the front door on
their own -- or so it seemed. Viewing things in this way, nonprofit boards
didn't consider marketplace pressures, or for that matter the existence of a
competitive marketplace. Today, especially in the fields of health and
education, all that has changed. And certainly, nonprofits, which have to work
hard to recruit and retain customers, volunteers and donors, are well aware of
these competitive pressures. Adopting the approaches of traditional boards
wonít work for todayís nonprofits.
Some of these barriers will be familiar. All can be overcome. Let's look at
five strategies that can help your board adopt a visionary leadership style.
The first strategy is to focus on the ultimate ends of the organization. Once
again, taking our inspiration from John Carver, author of Boards That Make a
Difference, the board must concentrate on the nonprofitís ultimate ends
rather than the day-to-day means used to get things done. Board directors should
focus on the mission, vision, goals and strategies contained in the strategic
plan. They should leave daily management of the organization to the staff and
executive director. This approach will help the board avoid micro-management and
structure board meeting time to address more pressing governance matters.
The second strategy for nurturing visionary board leadership is to create a
long-range plan for the development of future board leadership. In contrast to
the typical short-term recruitment process that focuses narrowly on filling
anticipated nonprofit board vacancies for the current year only, boards need a
long-range plan for developing future leadership. We addressed this in the
second article of this series.
Such a long-term leadership development plan centers on the following
questions: Who will be serving on and leading the board over the next three
years? What is our plan to scout board leadership talent for the future? How
will we go about fostering and developing future board leadership? Key elements
of this approach include:
- Replace the nominations committee with a board development committee. This
committee will use the key questions listed above to devise an ongoing
process that includes prospecting, recruiting, selecting, orienting and
training, and performance assessment of board directors.
- Link board development to your strategic plan. Identify the new skills,
knowledge, personal contacts, and other attributes future board directors
will need to possess in order for the board to do its part in advancing the
strategic plan. Based on this analysis, develop targeted board recruiting
- Develop a written board director job description that reflects the future
needs and expectations of the board.
- Direct the executive committee to design board meeting agendas that focus
attention on the ultimate ends and avoid micro-management.
- Conduct an annual evaluation of the board that focuses, in part, on how
well the board is maintaining a focus on the "ultimate ends" questions.
- Develop a just-in-time board orientation program to speed up the learning
curve for new board directors so that they can hit the ground running in
their first meeting. Again, it is important to link this advance program of
orientation and training to the strategic plan.
The third strategy is to develop a shared vision of the organization's
future. The key question for boards is the following: "If we could create the
nonprofit of our dreams that will have the impact we most desire, what would
that look like five years from today?" The board's answer to this question
captures the organization's vision. As mentioned earlier, it is critical that
the board be involved in the development of a shared vision, the centerpiece of
the strategic plan. Once the board has developed a vision statement, look for
ways to live the vision in your organization. For example:
- Use the vision as a framework for board decision-making in every meeting
-- not just during the annual planning retreat.
- Share your vision with the wider community. Once you go public, it's hard
not to live up to the vision.
- Ask board directors what they think is most exciting and inspiring to them
about the wording of the organization's vision statement.
- Use the vision as the basis for regular dialogue on emerging issues and
- Seek major media coverage when strategic plan milestones are reached and
use this as an opportunity to promote your vision both inside and outside of
The fourth strategy for nurturing visionary leadership is to help the board
keep up with the rapid pace of change. Provide information that helps the board
think about these key questions: What external changes and trends will have the
greatest impact over the next three to five years on the nonprofit and the
people it serves? How can the nonprofit effectively respond to these changes and
trends? How are other schools and youth serving organizations responding to
these changes and trends?
Let's remember, however, that busy people will have difficulty finding time
to read a lot of material so if you intend to share information with the board,
especially in printed form, make sure that it is timely, relevant and
well-summarized. Here are some suggestions for helping board directors stay
- Schedule time during the regular board meetings for discussion about the
impact of key external changes and trends and emerging critical issues.
- Encourage individual board directors to read, listen and look for
information about emerging trends and bring this information to the attention
of the board.
- Periodically send board directors short readable articles and information
about Web sites summarizing relevant future trends.
- Involve the board in ongoing strategic planning as a way to expose them to
external trend data.
The fifth strategy is to stay in touch with the changing needs of your
The fifth strategy for transforming the leadership style of the board is to
provide members with information to enable them stay in touch with the changing
needs of the people served by the nonprofit Ė now and in the future. Key
questions include: What do our constituents think of the organization (i.e.,
What is their perception or image of the nonprofit?) What are the most important
future needs and service expectations of the nonprofit on the part of our
constituents? For new needs and service expectations of the nonprofit likely to
emerge among constituents, what other organizations are positioned to meet these
constituent needs? Consider the following activities:
- Create opportunities for board directors to "meet the customer." For
example, the board can schedule an ongoing series of community forums to
provide board directors with face-to-face opportunities to listen to
constituents talk about their emerging needs. This will be particularly
important for board directors from the larger community who donít have direct
personal experience of being served by the nonprofit.
- Tap staff experience and knowledge of people served by the nonprofit to
deepen the board's understanding of emerging constituent needs.
- Establish a "marketing and planning information system" to supply the
board with data to support its planning and decision-making roles.
In summary, I want to stress that the five strategies just described here all
reinforce each other. Hereís how to use them to transform your nonprofit board:
Review the seven attributes of visionary leaders.
Use these factors as a checklist to assess your board. Identify areas that
need improvement. Consider use of the Visionary Board Leadership
Assessment which can be found on our website.
Barriers. Scrutinize the seven barriers to visionary board
leadership. Some will be familiar. All can be overcome. Begin work now to
remove these barriers.
Strategies. Remember, an effective, visionary board is built on five
key strategies that lay the groundwork for board and overall nonprofit
effectiveness in this time of rapid, profound change.