Strategic planning online: Lessons and recommendations for your nonprofit

Strategic planning is a significant part of determining where your organization is and where it needs to go. By developing a strategic plan, your organization can clarify and determine its priorities and what you need to achieve these priorities.

In 2020, Volunteer Alberta undertook the task of developing our new mission and vision statements and our strategic priorities for 2021-2023. COVID-19 presented our team with a new challenge of creating a strategic plan virtually and effectively since we could not gather in-person.

The following is a summary of how we got to our final draft of our new strategic priorities for the next three years, and what we learned along the way by developing a strategic plan online.

Planning out the process

Before you develop a strategic plan, you need to determine what you need to be successful. Questions and processes to consider include:

Who should be at the table?

Think of which key players need to be part of the planning sessions that will ultimately help you and your organization to be successful.

At Volunteer Alberta, we included staff, board members, Volunteer Alberta Members, relevant organizations in our network and funders in our conversations.

What tools should we use or do we need?

With the pandemic still ongoing, what tools does your organization have access to? Which tools are accessible for participating staff in the planning process? The tools that we found to help facilitate our process online included Zoom and Mural.

Zoom was handy for group activities where broader discussions needed to take place. In this instance, we used the breakout room feature to have smaller conversations and then came back together to report on what took place.

Mural allowed us to write, edit and provide feedback on a live document as a group. The application was helpful to encourage group participation and engagement while being able to see the same screen and real-time updates.

Where is your organization in the environmental landscape now?

It’s important to know where you are to decide where you need to go. Conducting an environmental scan is a crucial piece in your strategic planning process. Does your organization’s current mission and vision align with what’s happening in your sector or across sectors? Do your clients/service users value what you do?

Connecting with your stakeholders during this process is of the utmost importance. It allows you to get an accurate picture of your organization now and what you should focus on next to meet your stakeholders’ needs.

The tool we decided to use to conduct our environmental scan is called the Challenge Dialogue System (CDS). For more information on the process and our results, see our CDS Challenge Paper final report.

What we learned and recommendations for your organization

Since this was the first time we attempted strategic planning online, we learned a few things along the way that may help your organization:

Give board members and staff sufficient time to complete activities

Our CDS Challenge Paper required participants to read information ahead of time and answer questions accordingly as part of our environmental scan. Conducting an environmental scan takes time and thought. Be sure to communicate how much time these activities will take to allow staff and board members to adjust their workloads or make time accordingly.

Include more than your current stakeholders in your environmental scan

It’s important to survey people or organizations that are not currently part of your network. By interviewing people outside of your network, you can find out why they’re not engaged with your organization and what it would take for them to be part of the work you do. While we are happy with the outcomes from our environmental scan, we would include more potential or prospective stakeholders for a more fulsome result if we could do it again.

Spread out your planning sessions to mitigate participant burnout

When we met to develop our strategic plan, we held two and a half day sessions spanning 10 days, with the board and staff over Zoom. Many participants recommended breaking up the full-day sessions into shorter and more frequent sessions to keep conversations flowing, and participants engaged in the process.

Hire a facilitator to manage conversations and keep time

When we conducted our CDS and strategic planning sessions over zoom, we engaged third-party facilitators to help manage and direct conversations. Hiring facilitators allowed full participation of staff and board and helped ensure our discussions stayed on topic and on time during our sessions.

In the end, we learned that strategic planning does not have to be in-person! There are many tools and ways to convene your team online to develop a successful strategic plan, and we encourage you to try it out for yourself. You may be surprised by your outcomes!

Find out what our new strategic priorities are for 2021-2023!

Adrienne Vansevenandt 

Volunteer Alberta