A networked approach to strategic planning

Pillar has embarked on a three-year strategic planning process since our early days. At the time we developed our last strategic plan, we were growing at a fast pace and had many new board members and new staff. Before we started looking ahead, we wanted to make sure that our board, staff and network were all on the same page. We didn’t want the development of our next strategic plan to be just a one-day event, but rather a journey of ideas, dialogue and reflection with our whole community. Below, we’ll share the steps we took to engage our network in our unique strategic planning approach to help you ensure your own strategic planning process represents your stakeholders.

Asking good questions 

The first step we took to engage our network in the strategic planning process was to carry out a survey. We received over 160 responses from both members and non-members of Pillar that helped us to assess our areas of focus going forward. We also posed the same questions to our co-tenants at Innovation Works. The following questions were included in our survey:

  • What do you love about Pillar (answers show in word cloud below)? 
  • What questions do you have about Pillar?
  • What should Pillar focus on in the next 3-5 years?
  • What else can Pillar do to help your organization?

Jamming about our future

The next step was to host a design jam to gather input from our network. A design jam is a creative brainstorming session that engages a diverse group of individuals to come up with solutions for a particular issue. We asked participants a variety of questions including those below. Out of the session, our members generated 49 ideas about Pillar’s strategic focus for the next three to five years, and we prioritized those ideas into our top three.

  • What does it means to be part of a network?
  • What is Pillars role in creating a network?
  • What is Pillar’s role in “system” work for the nonprofit sector?
  • What is Pillar’s “next level”?
Engaging past chairs in reflection 

We held an informal board social where we asked our past board chairs to reflect on the strategic planning journey during each of their times as chair. Together, they shared what they considered to be their key moments and learnings from Pillar’s past strategic plans. Below, Willy Van Klooster, founding board chair, shares his reflections on Pillar’s early strategic priorities.

Exploring our epic tale

Our past board members, current board members, past staff and current staff came together to participate in telling our “epic tale”, a session facilitated by Janet Frood of Horizon Leadership. The epic tale is a process of telling the story of an organization through the experience and lens of the many people who have been part of it. All members identify the major milestones and achievements, as well as the disappointments and challenges. This process allowed us to capture a snapshot of Pillar today and things to consider in preparation for our strategic planning process.

Leaving behind our baggage and packing our luggage

Part of the process of developing an epic tale for your organization involves looking at what “baggage” you want to leave behind and what to pack in your “luggage” for the future. Baggage includes those ideas and practices that no longer serve you and luggage are those things that have been successful for you or new ideas for the future. For example, one element of our baggage was that we had to fight to be at the table on important community issues and embrace that we’ve earned our right to be there. One element of luggage was that despite our growth we maintain the enthusiasm, innovation, heart and nimbleness of a small organization. 

Capturing our adaptive cycle

The adaptive cycle was originally born out of environmental research, but can be applied to natural systems, social systems and organizations. The concept is a four stage cycle that includes birth, growth, maturation and creative destruction. In the context of systems or organizations, it is meant to explain what stage of development the system or organization is in and how resilient it is. We use this concept, shown in the image  below, to help us monitor our various programs and services. 

Thinking of this concept as it applies to a forest ecosystem can be helpful to understand it. Creative destruction is when old trees decompose or get burnt down releasing energy and providing opportunity for new trees to grow. In the birth phase, new seedlings or ideas are planted that require ample care and tending. During the growth phase, trees get bigger but also compete for resources. Lastly, during maturation trees are well established but need to be tended to to keep them healthy so they don’t burn or decompose. 

We didn’t want the development of our next strategic plan to be just a one-day event, but rather a journey of ideas, dialogue and reflection with our whole community.

Reconnecting to our why

According to author, motivational speaker and organizational consultant Simon Sinek, every organization needs to define their “golden circle” in order to define their “why” or reason for being. The golden circle starts with the question why in the centre of the diagram, as in why does the organization exist and for what purpose. The second circle asks how, or what sets the organization apart. Lastly, the outward circle asks what, or what are the programs, products or services the organization provides. During our strategic planning process, we determined our golden circle – pictured below – as a team to ensure we stay focused on our core reason for being. 

Sharing a staff perspective

At Pillar, we define both board and staff strategic plans and feel it is important to ensure that there is an interplay between board and staff in the development of both plans. We asked our staff to contribute their ideas of what they would like the board to consider during their strategic planning process; these topics included:

  • Our nonprofit services are our foundation
  • Our mission must include social enterprise and social innovation
  • We will play a lead role in diversity
  • We will have work/life balance
  • We must consider the sustainability of Pillar 
  • Cross-organization communications is key
Committing to our priorities 

On the day of our strategic planning session, our staff discussed their top six considerations with the board. We reviewed Pillar’s golden circle and created an environmental scan using the PESTLE framework to identify external influences including political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental. Out of this session, we determined our three strategic directions for the next three years and renewed our mission statement.

Pillar’s current strategic directions:
  1. Be Ready: Be ready for future opportunities and growth.
  2. Be Focused: Be focused to maximize our impact.
  3. Be Inclusive: Provoke discussion and action around equity and emerging cross-sector community issues.
Pillar’s mission statement:
  • To strengthen individuals, organizations and enterprises invested in positive community impact.
Getting to action

Each year, we develop both board and staff action plans to ensure we carry out the goals of our strategic plans. The board action plan identifies each action with timing and who will be responsible to make sure we fulfill our priorities. This annual best practice clearly defines the role of the board and engages the board fully in the future of the organization. Each year the board reviews the strategic priorities and makes any adjustments and plans for the year ahead.

To create our staff action plan, mini-interviews are conducted with staff asking how they think Pillar might achieve the objectives set out by the board. This approach breaks down silos and ensures all voices are heard. Staff came together to identify tactics to achieve the objectives set out by the board and created a master staff action plan that is updated annually. 

Keeping tabs on progress

To monitor our progress on the strategic plan a quarterly review of our performance measures is brought forward to the board. This has been an area of growth for Pillar as it is the most challenging part of the strategic planning process to find meaningful performance measures that demonstrate progress and do not create additional work without return.

To check out Pillar’s past strategic priorities and see our evolution as an organization of meeting the needs of our network read more here.