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Boards: Noses, Feet, and Hearts in to Develop the Strategic Plan

Nonprofit organizations are impacted by world events! Some are holding on by a fingernail watching our political, economic, and social climates to assure they are agile enough to respond, stay afloat, and buoy back from crisis. This is why creating a sound and realistic strategic plan is vital for organizations to survive and thrive.

Previously, when it comes to a board’s role in developing the strategic plan for a nonprofit organization, the old adage, “noses in and fingers out” applied. This symbolized boundaries that boards should not cross to keep their “fingers out” of day-to-day operations and involvement in creating the strategic plan.

But times have changed! Today your board should be “all-in” when determining the future of your organization! The board is responsible for leading the vision and molding the strategic path you’ll need to endure in uncertain times. This is no small feat! As such, boards also need to lean into the strategic planning process. Responsible leadership means supporting the Executive Director/CEO and staff in making solid decisions in developing current and future priorities for the organization, particularly as it relates to the board’s involvement.

Thankfully, nonprofit leaders and their staff have the expertise and experience to run day-to-day operations for your organization’s work. This is not the board’s role or sweet spot. But they can be helpful in creating the roadmap for your organization for the next three to five years.

Let’s uncover how the board can actively contribute to strategic planning!

It is smart for the Board Chair and the Executive Director to invite three to five board members to create a Board Strategic Planning Committee. These members will be invited to select planning meetings, (the “Kick Off, Discovery and Prioritization”)* with staff to help create or define three to five “wildly important priorities” or “WIPs” for the organization. While the Board Strategic Planning Committee is still not involved in the entire planning process, they can play a significant role in discussing vision, mission and WIPs. They can provide ideas, input, and feedback before these essential elements are shared with the full board. By operating this way, you’re managing the feedback stream, positioning these members of your board to be champions of your strategic plan, which will ultimately create more board buy-in with the plan’s finalization and implementation.

Some context and a great example of WIPs!

WIP #1 Diversify Income Streams

The staff fundraising team and board agree that your organization should diversify philanthropic support and not rely as much on government funding. The staff will determine the specific grants, earned revenue channels, individual giving strategies, etc., the organization will pursue to achieve this goal, but the board can also play a part.

Ideally the board’s Development Committee will work in tandem with the fundraising staff to create a prospect list of private foundations, donor advised funds and individuals with whom board members have relationships. Together they can steward and cultivate these relationships that can lead to future funding from those foundations and individuals.

WIP #2 Embed DEI into Our Organization

Human Resources and Operations staff and the board agree that the time is right to discuss critical issues around race, equity, and power at the organization. Identified priorities are to diversify staff and the board, audit HR and other policies and practices, and review cultural norms. Together the board and staff can create a DEI task force to address these issues.

WIP #3 Strengthen the Board’s Position

The Executive Leadership team and the board Chair agree that the board is not being utilized optimally to support the organization. They will prioritize strengthening the Board and ED collaboration, clarify roles and responsibilities. and improve cultivation of board members. Additionally, they will provide opportunities for staff to meet with the board to ensure a continuous, long-term, successful relationship with the two most important stakeholder groups of the organization, the board, and staff.

As the strategic planning process moves forward, the Board Strategic Planning Committee can capture the WIPs and other key parts of the plan as it morphs into a sound roadmap for the future. At each board meeting this committee will share the WIPs and other insights to avoid any unforeseen, last-minute feedback and ensure the board is included, where necessary as the planning progresses.

Before the plan is finalized, the Board Chair may call a special board meeting or conduct smaller meetings with individuals to allow them to provide input. By genuinely seeking feedback, the Board Chair is giving each member a voice. Familiarity with the key elements of the plan will ensure approval when it is time to get the final vote to accept and execute the plan.

The Strategic Plan is a wonderful way to keep the board engaged and excited about the future of the organization. Their expertise is useful, and their membership and level of importance is reiterated. Give each board member the opportunity to be “nose, feet, and heart in” to strategic planning and they will stick with you through thick and thin as you move courageously towards the future.

*These stages were borrowed from “The Five Stages of Strategic Planning” from a partner consultant, Dr. Renee Rubin Ross of The Ross Collective. To learn more about strategic planning, visit

Christal M. Cherry, The Board Pro, works with nonprofits to build better boards. Her services include board recruitment and onboarding, DEIB training and audits, board fundraising, financial stewardship, and conflict resolution. Learn more at

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