Stance: The ED's Role and Attitude in Strategic Planning

Jeanne Bell photoAn overlooked -- but crucial -- element in strategic planning is the attitude or stance that the executive director takes to the process. Jeanne Bell of CompassPoint suggests a variety of roles and stances that will be appropriate:

As we experiment with new ways of setting strategy, it is easy to lose track of the fact that irrespective of chosen methodology, the executive’s stance in strategy formation is the single most important factor in how bold, how transformative, and how enduring the decisions made during the process will be.

We nonprofit executives are often ambivalent about how best to show up to strategic planning processes:

  • Is it our job to make sure that board members feel they are establishing strategy for the staff to implement?

  • To ensure that all staff voices are heard, and that staff feels fully heard?

  • To step back and let the consultant create a series of activities to unearth the best strategic direction?

  • To listen and then promote our own ideas about strategy?

  • To use the process to get everyone aligned with the directions emerging from the management team?

Rather than stepping back or working clandestinely behind the scenes, I believe the planning process is best served by executive directors modeling for all on staff and board the qualities that are most likely to lead to transformative decision making:

  • Courage

  • Candor

  • Pragmatism about competitive advantage in the marketplace, and

  • Financial savvy.

In many cases, this means she'll have to push her board members to see what they can't from where they sit, risking their judgment and doubt; or, to say the uncomfortable truth to her staff about a failing program; or, even to question her own capacity to lead the organization into its best future.

As a member of CompassPoint's staff team of consultants, I am working on strategy formation with a variety of community-based nonprofits this year, and I am inspired by these examples of executive stance and the positive effect they have had on their respective planning processes.

Each of the following is a real nonprofit executive whose name and certain organizational descriptors I have changed to protect their privacy. The strategic issues and the executives’ stances to them are real. By seeing the range of executive director stances, we can see more choices and take more intentional positioning in the process.

Dennis: Non-Preservationist

Stance in Strategic Planning graphicDennis is a passionate and widely respected leader of a health organization that serves people of color. Strategy at his organization means grappling with the fact that implementation of health care reform in 2014 could render some of his key programs and their funding streams obsolete. While it is scary for long-time staff and board to conceive of a radically different program set or to consider merger opportunities, Dennis models a commitment to clients and community rather than a drive to preserve the organization whole cloth. He sets a tone of inquiry and possibility for the planning process rather than one of fear and looming scarcity. By modeling this stance, other staff and board see that it is not only safe but encouraged to think boldly about how they can best be of service in a completely altered healthcare landscape.

Brenda: Unflinching Critique

Brenda is the long-time leader of a domestic violence organization. Despite her tenure and success, Brenda is squarely in that part of the domestic violence field that is questioning how successful the movement's program strategies have been in permanently reducing family violence. I was especially struck with how Brenda modeled this rigorous self-reflection as we applied the Matrix Map process to assess the mission impact and financial viability of each of the organization’s core program lines. With her program directors in the room, she publicly scored core programs lower than her colleagues did on impact factors such as "creates enduring change." Without personally indicting anyone’s performance, her behavior put folks on notice that the planning process would not endorse programs as-is for their simple “mission alignment," but instead hold each to a higher standard of impact and social change.

Anne: Stepping Aside

Anne is an expert and beloved specialist who, after years as program director, took on the executive director role at a nonprofit that provides home-based services to children with disabilities. As the recession set in and she and her board were forced to make a series of difficult decisions in the face of reduced funding, she began to question whether her great strengths -- medical expertise, credibility with program staff, and being the "face" of an issue in her field -- were aligned to the strategic challenges facing the organization.

Moreover, she frankly evaluated whether she wanted to direct so much energy to questions of business model and organizational development, which is what was needed of the executive to position the organization to thrive in its next phase. It was inspiring to watch her put organizational needs above personal attachment to a given position or status -- despite protest from a board of directors and staff that really wanted her to stay in the role.

These are three examples of executives who are approaching strategy formation with stances that push their staffs and boards to look beyond the way things have been to the way things need to be for the organization to be relevant and sustainable going forward. I think what can keep executives from doing this are dated messages about how strategy actually gets developed and implemented in nonprofit organizations. Here are five old executive stances and a corresponding reframe that better suits today’s operating environment:

Old Executive Stance

New Executive Stance

I have to start a new strategic plan because my last 3-year plan just expired.

Strategy formation and refinement is ongoing; if a significant new force or opportunity emerges, it may be time to reevaluate organizational strategy.

I am facilitating my board in setting organizational strategy that my staff and I will implement.

I am leading an organizational strategy process in which my board will serve as key informants, loyal opposition, and stewards of organizational mission and brand.

I should wait for our plan to be done before I make any major staffing decisions.

Having people in the wrong jobs contributing to strategy formation will undermine the relevance and execution of the strategies being developed. Act now.

Staff won’t execute strategies that they did not help to develop.

I need to ensure that the best informants—both internal and external—influence the strategies they are best positioned to inform. In fact, people can execute strategies they did not personally develop if those new strategies are well communicated and they have strong supervision to support them in ongoing execution.

I should step back in the process to ensure that I don’t overly influence the conversation and thwart the creativity of the staff.

I should bring all of my knowledge of what’s happening in our market space to bear, using the strategy formation process as a time to bring the external internal and develop staff’s strategic awareness of market forces.

It doesn’t actually matter if the plan is particularly strategic or clarifying, we’re finally done and I have something to send to funders.

If I am going to spend the money and time, I am committed to a process that yields genuine organizational strategy and serves as the organization’s framework for pursuing exceptional mission impact in a financially viable way.


What I know from my planning work with community nonprofits is that the process always gets to a point where leadership has to make a call—to make the decision or decisions that will set the course for the organization. No expert consultant or perfectly engaged board of directors can mitigate that responsibility. So, it makes most sense for executives to show up to the planning process from day one carrying that decision-making responsibility transparently. Effective leaders carry it from a place of shared leadership that does not stifle staff and board input and influence; it’s a worn out stance to think those are mutually exclusive.

Jeanne Bell is CEO of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, a national, social change organization providing consulting, research, training, and leadership services to nonprofits. Jeanne co-authored Financial Leadership for Nonprofit Executives and, with Jan Masaoka and Steve Zimmerman, Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability. She is Board Chair of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management and a board member of Nonprofit Quarterly.

See also in Blue Avocado:


Comments (6)

  • Anonymous

    I spend a good amount of my consulting time working with groups on strategic planning or strategic issue clarification. A key perspective I bring in my approach and tools is how to maximize participation and increase (small L) leadership at all levels in the organization through strategic planning. What is here that really resonates is that formal leaders should not abdicate their role or insights in the spirit of "participation". Formal leaders need to lead AND need to know how to engage others in leadership. I am curious about the implied assumption in your grid that staff will not execute strategies they did not develop. In my experience, it is not an either/or. The idea is that determining who needs to be part of the strategic thinking process within the organization is a way of building stronger collective leadership capacity--staff are not just informants, but also thought partners sharing the mission and objectives of the organization.

    Aug 15, 2012
  • Anonymous

    As much as I believe it is important to have staff input, with experienced veteran's in the office I'm finding less creativity and willingness to change. I know it makes everyone uncomfortable but when it becomes critical to the mission, relevancy and sustainability of the organization I have had to implement change with tremendous resistance from staff. There are times when the Board and I agree on something that is critical for the success of the organization and the staff just doesn't want to participate. That can be unfortunate for a staff member unless they are at least willing to help with the execution.

    Aug 16, 2012
  • Anonymous

    I've found in our under-staffed organization that far too often unrealistic expectations are placed on staff in the strategic planning process. Board members have a tendency to invent things for staff to do because it sounds like a good idea, without any thought about the resources it will take to execute and sustain new projects and initiatives. It diverts staff time away from core services and can make the organization completely ineffective at serving its intended clients. Imagine case workers at a crisis shelter being expected to put on a fundraiser gala. Really? Who is going to help the clients? It is amazing what some board members dream up without having a clue about the resources it will take to implement their suggestion. Having staff involved in the process helps to set realistic and reachable goals, in my opinion, and informs the development and allocation of required resources.

    Aug 29, 2012
  • Anonymous

    It can go both ways. The staff and I were excited to be involved in a strategic planning process, and eager to make some long overdue changes, but when a member of the board didn't like the way things went, he sabotaged the process. Unfortunately he has bullied his way to the top and no one is willing to stand up to him, so the entire proces has stalled for two years.

    Aug 29, 2012
  • Anonymous

    I am a brand new Executive Director -on the job for a month. We are due for a strategic plan. How long should we wait until we tackle it given that I am new to the organization although not new to the community?

    Aug 17, 2012
  • Anonymous

    My Board was anxious to begin strategic planning as soon as I started with the organization. I read some good advice: Strategic planning takes time and effort devoted to doing it well. Is there anything else vying for the time of the Board and Staff that needs to be taken care of before strategic planning can begin? For my organization, the answer was that the organization needed to be stabilized--in all areas, from financial management to personnel management--before we could begin strategic planning.

    Aug 17, 2012

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