Jan Jaffe and Mark Sedway, Senior Partners, The Giving Practice
How do you feel about strategy?
Most philanthropy practitioners we work with feel ambivalent at best. For most of us, signing up to do strategic planning is about as energizing as arranging to get your teeth cleaned. It has the oppressive quality of someone doing something to you rather than being in charge of your own health, especially when you bring evidence of poor self-care to the appointment.
It doesn’t have to be that way. In the same way that flossing and brushing your teeth will make that appointment less painful, we’ve seen how foundations that treat their strategy not as a discrete planning process but as ongoing practice, and use bite-size activities to make the experience manageable and fun, come out the other side with their strategy gleaming and in good health.
Based on The Giving Practice’s years of experience working with foundations, we wrote DIY Strategy Improvements: 10 Activities for Community Foundations to provide ways to piggyback strategy discussions onto existing meetings, make strategy part of your regular work and create results that are exciting and relevant to you and your stakeholders.
Mark Sedway leading the Washington Community Foundation Convening through the DIY Strategy Improvements activities.
With the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Philanthropy Northwest, we wrote it for community foundations in particular, but most of the activities are good for all kinds of foundations. We developed the guide with these lessons learned from our client strategy work in mind:
Look at your strategy as is. Remember, your organization is already living its strategy. No organization is strategy-less. It’s easier and ultimately more fruitful to use what you are doing and learning now as a basis for your strategy work, rather than expect big insights from a blank page. (Activity 2 in the guide.)
Do your discovery. “If I had an hour to solve a problem,” Albert Einstein said, “I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solutions.” Prematurely jumping to a definition of the problem is a hazard for consultants and clients alike. We’ve learned that the best strategy experiences start with a process of discovery — creating structured conversations with stakeholders. It is amazing how helpful this is to do. (Activities 3 and 4 in the guide.)
Bring the hard stuff to the surface. Think of your foundation’s strategy as an iceberg, with the most important stuff “below the waterline” as it’s been termed. The great opportunity in doing strategy is to bring all kinds of assumptions, made by all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances, to the surface. What goes unspoken and unchallenged? What about your work do you not want to see? (Activities 5 and 9 in the guide.)
Get people moving and seeing, not just thinking. Strategy can be fun. Really. We find that when we do exercises in which people stand up, move around, interact, create together, and engage in what Michael Schrage calls “serious play,” they learn more from the experience and create better results. As one of our colleagues said at the recent Washington Community Foundations Convening earlier this month, “How many strategic plans sit on your shelf because they were created by your left brain?” (All the activities in the guide!)
Capture your strategy in a living document. A plan languishing “on a shelf” or buried in a back folder — it’s one of the most common complaints we hear about strategy work. One solution we’ve discovered is, rather than aim to write a polished plan at the end of the process, to create a living document that tracks your thinking from the get-go. We call it a “Strategy Narrative” — an expanding container for your strategy as-is, your strategy as you would like it be, and ideas about how to narrow the gap between. When board and staff members feel engaged in improving their strategy on ongoing basis, not simply when the clock has clicked down to a set expiration date, the results are always better. The Strategy Narrative is one way to do that. (Page 18 of the guide.)
We don’t want to pretend that this is easy work. It isn’t. But we do guarantee that these kinds of activities can help you turn frustration and doubt into genuine curiosity about how to live into your strategy. We hope you will share your response to the guide, your suggestions for using and improving it, and your reflections on the work.
Jan Jaffe and Mark Sedway are senior partners with The Giving Practice.