Strategic Planning Part 2: The Environmental Scan : Successful Nonprofits

Strategic Planning Part 2: The Environmental Scan

by goldenburggroup

Strategic Planning Part 2: The Environmental Scan

by goldenburggroup

by goldenburggroup

This post is the second installment in a series about strategic planning. The first post focused on determining whether you need a new strategic plan and if your organization is ready to actually begin the planning process. You can read that post here.

Once you are ready to roll up your sleeves and begin a strategic planning process, it’s a good idea to understand the four distinct: The environmental scan, drafting the initial strategy, board feedback, and finalizing the plan.

These stages are used by almost everyone – from consultants who facilitate strategic plans to boards that choose a boot-strapped, do-it-yourself planning model.  While every consultant has their own term for each of these stages, they don’t vary much from planning process to planning process.

This post dives into the first stage of the planning process: The Environmental Scan.

Designing Your Environmental Scan

Strategic planning typically begins with the environmental scan, which some consultants refer to as information gathering or even “unpacking the organization”. The environmental scan reviews your organization from a number of different perspectives and usually involves compiling and analyzing several years of programmatic, financial, and fundraising data to help identify existing trends in each area.

Understanding the data trends is critically important to the planning process. Through this process, some organizations have found that:

  • High donor acquisition rates have masked very low retention rates for several years.
  • Personnel expenses have remained flat while the organization’s budget has grown in almost every other line item.
  • Program outcome data indicates dramatic success in some programs, with significant issues in others

Once a general trend is identified, we can determine what additional research is necessary to understand the trend’s underlying causes.

The environmental scan also typically includes gathering feedback from internal and external stakeholders (some consultants refer to stakeholders as constituents). Organizations can collect this information using various tools, including online or paper surveys, phone interviews, in person conversations, and facilitated focus groups. As with all individual data collection efforts, planners typically obtain more information using higher-touch and more time-consuming efforts like phone and in-person interviews.

Identifying Your Stakeholders

When I help organizations conduct an environmental scan, board members and executive directors are often surprised when the stakeholder brainstorming session results in a list of 75 to 100 people.  We typically brainstorm 4 to 6 stakeholders representing the following constituencies: clients, staff, former board members, major donors, foundation funders, institutional funders, organizational partners, the civic and government sector, related associations, and of course all current board members.

In nearly every stakeholder brainstorming process, someone will ask “how do you define a stakeholder?” My definition is simple: a person or organizational representative that will be essential to the successful implementation of our plan.

Once we have a thorough list of stakeholders, we will help create an outline for a structured conversation. Some consultants refer to this as an interview or assessment tool, but I prefer to think of this as a conversation with a stakeholder. We have an outline of the items we hope to discuss, while remaining open to the conversation going in other directions as well. Typically, this less formal structure provides a higher quality of feedback from your stakeholders

You can download a sample structured conversation tool to use for your own strategic planning process here.

In my opinion, no environmental scan is complete without a board evaluation. Conducted by an independent person who is not on the board or staff, the board evaluation should assess the board in several areas: recruitment, orientation, participation, and adherence to organizational documents like the bylaws.

The board evaluation should also offer comparative data so that the governing body can understand how it benchmarks against similar boards. Additionally, it never hurts to give individual board members their own results on attendance, committee participation, giving, and fundraising, with a comparison to the board’s average performance in these areas.

Environmental Scan Results

By the end of the environmental scan, the organization should have a complete assessment of their strengths and challenges; understand the factors that have shaped the organization in recent years; and be prepared to consider future opportunities.

Next Steps
Before considering these future opportunities, the organization will want to revisit its mission, vision, and core values. The next blog post in this series will focus on the next step.

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