Putting advocacy in your strategic plan

This is not a “how-to” post on strategic planning.

There are certainly other resources, and others far more expert than I, to address the theory and practice of quality strategic planning (you know, the kind that is actually strategic and is actually planning).

But I’ve been working with a couple of nonprofit organizations (on advocacy, research, and capacity-building) that have just completed or are undergoing strategic planning processes, and that has me thinking about two kinds of intersections between advocacy and strategic planning: first, using your advocacy skills to influence your organization’s direction and, second, incorporating specific advocacy objectives and activities into the strategic plan, to increase their acceptance within the organization’s resource distribution and power hierarchies.

Before we get to that, though, it’s worth saying that I agree with the authors of The Networked Nonprofit that “strategic planning” as we understand it today–a discrete, time and resource-intensive, relatively insular process–will soon be a relic of the past, at least for the most nimble and responsive organizations.

In its place will be real-time, continuous, transparent, collaborative listening and analysis and thinking about current opportunities, future possibilities, and how to best position the organization within them. Such a process, integrated seamlessly into how the organization talks with staff, donors, constituents, and community leaders about their work, their environment, and where they’re headed, would guide not only big decisions like staffing and program development but also the daily ones, related to message development, event planning, and fundraising appeals.

And it wouldn’t require three-day-long retreats.

Or those colored dots.

But, today, as you work to steer your organization towards a simplified and opened up planning ‘orientation’, how can you use your advocacy skills to shape agency decisions, while also positioning the organization to value advocacy as you know it should?

Some tips here, from my own participation in five separate strategic planning processes, as a consultant, Board member, and staff member.

  • Approach the strategic planning process as an advocacy target. Do research the way you would for any campaign–who will be the key decision makers, what are the entry points to the process, where are there relationships that you can leverage to influence the outcome? This isn’t, of course, about trying to strongarm anyone, or “rigging” the process, but about preparing to approach the process with an eye towards your preferred outcomes, applying your skills of education, persuasion, and storytelling, just as you would in another change context.
  • Use your crowd. Someday, hopefully, nonprofit organizations’ strategic plans will be truly transparent, so that constituents and volunteers and the general public have an opportunity to participate and an additional tool for accountability. Until that day, think about how you can use those who are invested in your work to contribute to the analysis and brainstorming that are essential to any good strategic plan, and also about how sharing some of the results of the plan can help you in your efforts to increase organizational follow-through (because more eyes will be watching).
  • Be prepared with arguments about how advocacy can advance the other strategic goals of organizational leaders. This requires, of course, having some sense of what those goals are likely to be, and then being able to talk about advocacy in a way that will resonate with those other agendas. Maybe your leadership wants to enhance the organization’s profile? Reduce staff burnout and turnover? Build relationships with influential supporters and potential donors? You can make a strong case for how advocacy complements all of those goals.
  • Get advocacy included in the strategic plan, in some form. Maybe, at this point, your leadership is only willing to consider an ad hoc Board committee to explore a public policy agenda, or cosponsoring a learning conference with other agencies in your field, or allowing staff to use some of their professional development time for policy-related content. It’s a start. Once your strategic plan outlines advocacy as a legitimate component of your organization’s work, you’ve begun to shift the thinking about who you are and what you do, and that’s often the biggest hurdle to overcome in engaging more actively in social change.

    Obviously, I want to hear from practitioners involved in strategic planning today. What has worked, for you, in terms of advocacy conversations within this process? What advice do you have? Have you attempted to use your advocacy skills on your own organizational targets? What have been the results? And, what are your thoughts on the future of this “future-planning” exercise?

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