In the nonprofit world, few props can induce more panic than blank flipcharts, especially when the task ahead is mapping out the future. While a crisp new pad and scented markers might seem like green fields and blue skies to some, this setup belies the messy reality that organizations are in perpetual flux, layered with histories, personalities, worries about the future—not to mention all the “real” work waiting for you back at your desk. Retreats and other engineered spaces for reflecting and regrouping have material value, but they can overlook the fact that, as the poet John Ashbery wrote, “all stories begin in the middle.”
In our work, we’ve found that gathering information and insights ahead of a strategy session—from staff, stakeholders, peers, and the board—sets the planning process up for success in several ways. It provides something to put on the flipcharts, making the intangible tangible and providing everyone in the room with a common frame of reference in the form of qualitative and quantitative data. At the same time, the process of collecting information helps involve people at all levels of the organization in the planning process as it gets underway—and can even serve as an informal professional development opportunity for junior staff. And asking fans and critics alike for their candid perspectives not only signals that the organization is striving to do its best, but can also spark or revive relationships that are critical to mission—or funding—success.
Once gathered, the weight of these insights can create opportunities to address urgent but delicate issues. The research can help galvanize languishing change or growth by connecting the dots in a way that cannot happen through episodic staff satisfaction surveys, management-team meetings, or board visioning sessions alone.
Most importantly, building a planning process around information is the closest an organization can come to appraising itself objectively. Painting a picture of how an organization looks from the outside—warts and all—and a clear-eyed sense of its place in the world, is critical to charting a safe and true course.