Engaging Staff in Strategic Planning

by | Dec 16, 2022 | Strategic Planning

If you’re starting a strategic planning process, you might be pondering how deeply to engage your staff. You’ll certainly bring in your leadership team and department heads. But what about middle managers and non-management staff? Are there benefits to engaging staff in strategic planning?

First, it’s worth understanding what distinguishes a successful strategic plan from one that gathers dust on a shelf.

In our experience working with diverse organizations, we’ve found that most strategic plans fail because the right people weren’t in the room.

So who are the right people?


Engaging Staff in Strategic Planning Isn’t One Size Fits All

The “right people” to have in the room will vary for each organization. A smaller nonprofit may have their entire staff team and board serve as a planning committee. A larger organization may have to select carefully among many potential stakeholders.

Luckily, a good strategic planning facilitator or consultant will guide you in deciding who should participate and in what capacity. Plus, there are plenty of ways to engage staff in strategic planning.


  • Surveys: A well-designed strategic planning stakeholder survey can gather valuable insights from staff as well as stakeholders like volunteers, clients, and even donors. For staff, you’ll especially want to consider whether the survey is anonymous or not. With an anonymous survey, people may share more honest answers. But if a non-anonymous survey means your consultant can follow up with staff who share valuable input.


  • Interviews and focus groups: Stakeholder interviews and larger focus groups are another way to gather staff ideas. When combined with surveys, you’ll get the greatest range of feedback. That’s because some people express themselves better in writing and some are more comfortable with verbal participation.


  • Planning committee: Regardless of what you call it, you’ll need a set of decision-makers to guide your final strategic plan. This is also the group that will attend your strategic planning retreat. Some organizations may choose to have only organizational leadership in the room. Others may decide that including staff from a range of levels will create a stronger outcome.


With any of these approaches it’s critical to make sure staff understand how their input will influence the final plan. Make sure to also report back on how staff ideas actually did inform the planning process and its outcome.


An Unexpected Benefit When You Engage Staff in Strategic Planning

Strategic planning can help you identify hidden strengths in not only your organization but also among your staff.

After someone has been in a role for several years, it’s easy to see them only one way. Say your grant writer is a great grant writer. So naturally you want to keep them as a grant writer forever! Your grant writer may be thinking the same thing. They may even see grant writing as a central part of their identity.

But part of being a nonprofit leader is cultivating leadership within your organization. That means making sure team members are challenged, engaged, and growing. Often, people look to new roles to find that challenge, such as the federal government trying to woo laid off tech workers with mission-driven work. But it shouldn’t take changing jobs for people’s talents and potential to be recognized.

A few ways strategic planning can help:

  • Include “staff resources” in your SWOT analysis. Let your facilitator help you think about your staff capacity in new ways. You might just realize you’ve been overlooking a team members’ hidden skills.
  • Listen to staff members’ ideas. For example, when given the right environment and a new challenge, that quiet grant writer might share incredible ideas about how to improve cross-departmental collaboration.
  • Engage staff in the implementation plan. A strategic plan doesn’t end with a document. That’s just the beginning. Give staff the opportunity to take on new challenges during implementation.


Being Open to Seeing People in New Ways

Strategic planning is all about being willing to see your organization’s future in new ways. Even if you ultimately continue on your same path, being open to other possibilities is critical. Which is also a great reminder that staff members could benefit from that same perspective.


Looking for more resources on nonprofit capacity building? Check out our 2023 Webinar Series: Growing with Intent.

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