Five Essential Roles for the Nonprofit Strategic Planning Process

6 min read

Involving the right people, in the right ways, at the right times, is the most difficult part of the strategic planning process for most nonprofits. 

Lindsay wrote extensively about the role your board should play in strategic planning here. But your board is just one of many groups of stakeholders your organization must engage, and I’d argue that it’s not even the most important one. 

There are five groups that must be involved in strategic planning, including: 

  • Consultants
  • Staff
  • Board
  • Beneficiaries/program participants
  • Other external stakeholders (such as donors, funders, partners and volunteers). 

Each of these groups should play a unique role in the process, and those roles need to be spelled out early and often. If they’re not, organizations tend to face unnecessary friction in the strategic planning process that keeps them from arriving efficiently at a clear set of pillars (aka priorities) and objectives. The board tries to take on what should really be the work of the staff, or the staff misplaces their expectations on the consultants, rather than on one another, or worst of all, beneficiaries and external stakeholders are left out of the process, their priorities unheard. We’ve seen this happen too many times, and it isn’t pretty.

That’s why I’m dedicating this post to clearly defining the five essential roles that must be present in every effective strategic planning process. Here it goes…


Role: Facilitators

The most effective strategic plans are developed with the support of a consultant or group of consultants that act as facilitators, or guides to the strategic planning process. Their role is not to figure out what your organization’s mission, vision, strategic plan pillars or objectives should be. It is to effectively shepherd your organization through the process of figuring that out for itself, while involving all the other stakeholders mentioned previously. Consultants who effectively play the role of facilitators can conduct research to inform your strategic plan and engage your stakeholders in the process, schedule and lead meetings/planning sessions, counsel you through challenging decisions, help build consensus, produce documentation of the choices made in strategic planning sessions, and even write your strategic plan, but they’re not ultimately the ones responsible for its contents. That’s the next group we’ll discuss: staff. Still, effective consultants can make or break a strategic planning process. Make sure whomever you choose to work with has a well-defined, inclusive process proven to produce an actionable and measurable strategic plan.


Role: Developers and implementers

Staff play the most hands-on role in strategic planning. They should act as developers of both the “big picture” elements of your strategic plan (mission, vision, pillars etc.) and the nitty gritty elements that guide day-to-day work, such as objectives, key results and activity plans. Staff are also responsible for implementing the strategic plan once it is finalized, and measuring their progress. Among staff, there are typically a few sub-roles that warrant further discussion. These include: 

  • Executive director/president/CEO: The person in this role is typically the one held ultimately accountable for the contents of your final strategic plan, and for making it happen. They are present in every strategic planning session.
  • Leadership team or key staff: We suggest that organizations form what we call a primary planning committee made up of 5-8 members of their leadership team, or other key staff who will play an integral role in strategic planning. These individuals are present in all or most of the strategic planning sessions, and are part of every step of the strategic planning process, from working on the mission and vision to setting objectives, key results and activity plans.
  • Other staff: Staff who are not included in the primary planning committee should still be involved in the strategic planning process through surveys, listening sessions and opportunities to provide feedback on parts of the plan at various different stages of development. In some cases, you may also find that your primary planning committee ends up choosing objectives for its strategic plan that require input from staff outside the committee in order to be fully fleshed out. When this happens, it can make sense to involve other staff members in key result development and activity planning as it relates to their areas of focus or expertise.


Role: Collaborators and approvers

As Lindsay said in her post, the board has a responsibility to set the strategic direction for your organization, but that doesn’t mean they should be involved in the more detailed, “day-to-day” elements of strategic planning. Instead, board members should collaborate on the “high-level” elements of your strategic plan, and put their stamp of approval on the final plan, once it is complete.

 In the most effective strategic planning processes, there is a strategic planning sub-committee of the board that:

  • Participates in sessions to set or reaffirm the organization’s mission and vision
  • Learns about the strategic plan pillars recommended by the primary planning committee and collaborates with staff to refine those pillars
  • Reviews and helps refine the written strategic plan
  • Socializes and champions the strategic plan with other board members
  • Helps the executive director/president/CEO present elements of the strategic plan to the full board and secure the board’s final stamp of approval


Role: Drivers

As our Shared Power Strategy Rule Book™ aims to hammer home, beneficiaries are the most important, and most often overlooked group in the nonprofit strategic planning process. Your organization’s beneficiaries (the people who use your programs or services or stand to benefit from your work) are the reason your organization exists, and their priorities should be the true drivers behind your organization’s strategy, just as customers are the true drivers behind the strategy of a for-profit company. Beneficiaries should be asked to share their priorities, and how your organization can better align with them, at the onset of the strategic planning process, through surveys, interviews, focus groups, candid conversations, or a combination of those approaches. They should also be asked to provide input on your strategic plan pillars as you are shaping them. Only your beneficiaries can say whether your priorities align with theirs. In some cases, your beneficiaries should also be asked to weigh in on other elements of your full strategic plan. While it is not always possible, in the best-case scenario, you’ll form what we call a stakeholder committee made up partially of beneficiaries who can become intimately involved in the strategic planning process and provide insights and input at several points along the way.

Other External Stakeholders

Role: Influencers

Your other external stakeholders, such as your donors, funders, volunteers, partners and community members should also be treated as valuable influencers of your organization’s strategic plan. They should be asked to provide insight into their relationship with your organization and how a new strategic plan may strengthen that relationship. Again, this can happen through surveys, interviews, focus groups, candid conversations, or in an ideal world, a stakeholder committee where external stakeholders come together with beneficiaries to provide input into key elements of your strategic plan.

Let’s take a look at how these roles might stack up against the DARCI Framework for decision making, which we use frequently in our work. 

Darci model: decision-makers, accountable, responsible, consulted, informedNext time you’re beginning a strategic planning process, I hope you’ll reflect carefully on who you’re planning to involve, and ensure each of these five roles is filled, with little to no overlap. If you need us, we can help.


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