Strategic planning is a process that yields greater agreement and alignment within an organization. A good planning process also yields a list of specific commitments—measureable objectives to be worked on. As I have discussed here, flexibility is important to allow nonprofit leaders to adapt to changing conditions and emergent opportunities. Still, we should also strive to hold ourselves accountable to our shared commitments. For this reason, revisiting and monitoring progress on your strategic plan is an important role of the board of directors.
In order to enable monitoring, a plan should have specific timelines and outcomes, and clearly articulate who is responsible for the work (staff, a board committee, etc.).
The plan can also include a section that outlines how the plan will be monitored and how frequently. Here are some examples of different approaches:
- The board will review progress toward strategic plan goals annually at the fall board retreat. Each year, we will celebrate accomplishments as well as review areas where we have not been able to accomplish our objectives on the timeline expected. For areas of challenge, we will discuss with staff the barriers to completion, the importance of the objective at this point (Is it still critical for us to achieve this objective, or can we let it go?), and decide how to proceed. All adjustments to our plan will be documented in a plan update.
- Our organization has developed a dashboard to track key metrics related to our strategic plan (examples: rate of program completion, % of students receiving free lunch, donor renewal rate, # of click-throughs from our enewsletter). Our management team will update the dashboard monthly and it will be included in the board packet. A longer discussion period will be scheduled at board meetings on a quarterly basis to ensure that mid-course corrections are made to achieve our outcomes.
- Our staff will report on a quarterly basis on our plan progress using a red/yellow/green indicator system to indicate the status of each objective. For red and yellow objectives, a comment section will permit explanation of why we are behind and what action is being taken to get back on track.
As you consider what approach to take for your board, it is important to take into consideration the staff time Involved in reporting. Intensive data collection and frequent updates can be burdensome. Be sure that the information being gathering is really going to be reviewed, digested and used. In some cases, monitoring may best be done at the board committee level, with the committee digesting more data and summarizing the status of their area for the full board (e.g. the fund development committee pores through donor statistics to make meaning out of it, then reports the “headlines” about revenues and donor loyalty to the board).
Whatever system you employ, it is important for the board to monitor progress. I have seen some organizations where the strategic plan is on the shelf and the executive director feels free to go in new directions without the board demanding fidelity to the agreed upon goals. New directions are fine if vetted properly, but there is real value in maintaining disciplined focus on shared goals, and these should not be abandoned lightly. If your plan was thoughtfully developed, the goals set are important and relevant to your stakeholders, and point to success.