What Should Your Board’s Role be in Strategic Planning?

There’s a careful balance between under-involving and over-involving your nonprofit board in the strategic planning process. I am a strong believer that the board owns a nonprofit’s strategic direction, but that doesn’t mean they should be integrally involved in the day-to-day development of your strategic plan. 

So how should your board be involved in strategic planning?

As the adage goes, “noses in, fingers out.” Meaning your board should play a role in shaping the strategic direction of your nonprofit and taking ownership of the organization’s future. However, when it comes to how your nonprofit will execute and deliver on these goals, nonprofit leadership and staff, who have insights, expertise and on-the-ground knowledge of the day-to-day realities of the organization, should determine the steps that need to be taken. 

A good strategic planning process ensures board members are part of key strategic conversations, but that they leave operational planning to the nonprofit’s staff. So let’s review how you don’t want your board to engage in the strategic planning process, and then walk through how to garner the right level of board guidance and input.

A good strategic planning process ensures board members are part of key strategic conversations, but that they leave operational planning to the nonprofit's staff. Click To Tweet

Board over-involvement in strategic planning

Many executive directors think it’s smart to include board members (or a subset of them) in the entire strategic planning process. For a working board, this might be okay, but I generally don’t think it’s the best idea to have board members involved in every strategic planning session. Involving board members in the “how” tends to take them too far into the weeds and can actually undermine the executive director’s and staff’s important operational role

It’s best to have the board provide feedback or even assist in the creation of your strategic plan pillars (the three to five biggest priorities of your organization), but then to allow staff to put shape to how your plan will be executed. To put this into context, board members might determine, along with staff, that, strategically, your organization needs to transition away from an overreliance on government funds. So one of your strategic plan pillars might be to diversify funding and revenue streams. Once it is decided that this is one of your plan pillars, however, it should be up to staff to determine the specific grants, earned revenue channels, individual giving strategies, etc. that the organization will pursue to achieve this goal.

Board under-involvement in strategic planning

In cases of under-involvement, nonprofit leadership and staff often work together to create their strategic plan, and only share it with the board when it is ready to be adopted. This approach overlooks the board as a key set of stakeholders and can lead to problems when the team has worked hard to develop the plan and then board members come in with major feedback too late in the process. It also leads to very limited board ownership of the overall organizational strategy (which is one of their most important roles and responsibilities). 

The ideal board involvement in nonprofit strategic planning

There are more generative ways to involve your board in strategic planning that focus them on assisting the organization with important, big picture thinking while also creating buy-in for the future direction of your nonprofit.

The first approach I like to recommend centers around the development of a special board strategic planning committee. This committee is made up of a smaller group of board representatives. While they are still not involved in the entire planning process, they can play a role in important planning conversations regarding your nonprofit’s vision, mission and strategic priorities, providing ideas, input and feedback before these important elements are shared with the full board. By operating this way, you’re managing the feedback stream, positioning these members of your board as your strategic plan champions, and ultimately creating more board buy-in. 

The second approach we recommend involves including a set of board listening sessions in your strategic planning process to capture insights on key parts of your plan at various points in the planning process. This will help you avoid any unforeseen, last-minute feedback and ensure the board is included, where necessary throughout the strategic planning process. For example, you’d host a board listening session to get feedback on a new vision and mission before finalizing those elements. Then you’d host a board listening session to get feedback on your strategic plan pillars before finalizing. This way, when you bring the final plan up for board vote, everyone is already familiar with it and has discussed key elements of your plan previously. Ideally, your nonprofit has both a board strategic planning committee and also hosts board listening sessions.

Board and stakeholder involvement in strategic planning is complex. However, bringing in the right perspectives at the right times is critical, not only to develop your strategy, but also for creating alignment about your organization’s future.