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As I approach my first anniversary on the job and as we move into the lunar New Year (and Spring here in New York), it feels like a time for reflection and renewal. One of the highlights of this past quarter was the opportunity to meet up with all the AC staff from our Beijing and Bangkok offices – it’s a rare opportunity when we can all be together – to engage in our strategic planning process. The six-day process was both painful (considering the political climates in which we work) and exhilarating, given how smart, dedicated, and lovely is each of our staff members. The team worked to review and revise the organization’s mission and vision, develop a two-year plan, and develop an organizational “Theory of Change” to reflect our actual and aspirational work.
As the saying goes, a lotus flower must push through the mud to blossom.
Asia Catalyst is committed to growing along with our partners, to self-reflection and evolution to better respond to our partners’ needs. We are a capacity building organization, and it is incumbent upon us to conduct internal strengthening so that we can really do the job right.
In the blog post below, Guo Miao, our Beijing-based Senior Program Officer who has spent years in the field working with grassroots groups, shares her insights from AC’s recent planning process in Chiang Mai, Thailand and her experiences with strategic planning in the nonprofit sector.
Spotlight on Strategic Planning
by Guo Miao
Strategic planning is not just part of my work as a trainer and facilitator working with grassroots groups. It represents a yearly pilgrimage to connect with colleagues from our other offices in Bangkok, and New York to reaffirm or revise our vision and mission. It is about clarifying where we are going and making sure we get there together. This year we also invited two board members to join us to contribute their knowledge and experience.
However, I hadn’t always understood strategic planning as a participatory process. Earlier in my career, ‘strategic planning’ was code for when Program Managers and Senior Staff were out of the office for a week of closed-door meetings. They returned with a 20-page document that wasn’t mentioned again till the same time next year.
Only when I began working at Asia Catalyst did I learn that ‘strategic planning’ was more than just stack of paper in stylized font that was kept in a drawer.
At Asia Catalyst, I support our organizational and advocacy capacity building work by delivering trainings based on our Nonprofit Survival Guide, a manual that takes community based organizations (CBOs) through the fundamental components of strong organizational management at the grassroots level. We cover many topics, including, strategic planning, volunteer and staff management, and financial management and budget making.
Strategic planning involves clearly describing your vision, identifying what you contribute to the work that makes you the best organization to run your projects, as well as laying out your goals and how you plan to achieve them. The final plan should clearly explain the organization’s direction, while also allowing for periodic revision when community needs and other important elements change.
Despite having gone through this time-consuming and complex process with 60 or more grassroots organizations, I still love it. It is hard fought but worth it when the groups reach consensus and stand behind they newly-minted plan. I enjoy allowing room for discussion about community needs, personal histories and organizational knowledge, resource constraints, and what’s going on inside and outside the organization. I relish the role of challenging assumptions, questioning, prompting groups to find solutions and reach consensus.
I remember one group had this to say: “I think the two most important things about strategic planning are being clear about an organization’s direction and getting buy-in. Sure, capacity and resources play a part but that really only affects how fast the organization grows or how efficiently it works. You can grow slowly or work fast, the issue is, “are you working and growing in the right direction?” In terms of buy-in, if everyone is involved in the discussion process and contributed to the decision making the work plan becomes jointly owned instead of someone else’s “To-do list.”
I couldn’t agree more. The fact is, board members and community are the oft-forgotten stakeholders in the strategic planning process. Participatory processes allow for diverse perspectives to be taken into account, and ensure buy-in from the very beginning. So if your organization’s strategic plan is currently tucked away in a drawer somewhere, maybe its time to pull it out for a review? And remember to invite the whole team!