Boards and Strategic Planning – Their role, Their impact


0:00:47  Cynthia Rojas

Hi, everyone, Welcome to Coffee Time with Masterminds. We have an exciting show. If you watch our shows back to back, you saw a replay with Anne Yurasek of Fio Partners last week. And guess what she was talking about, Strategic Planning. Well, as you know, we’re doing a board series and instrumental to boards, our strategic plans or the planning process for the future of an organization. And who else do we bring on then Anne Yurasek, she’s back. So, grab a cup of coffee, sit back for the next 30 minutes and let’s hear why board members are important to the strategic planning process.

0:01:14 CTMM Jingle

0:01:41 Cynthia Rojas:

Hi, everyone. Welcome to Coffee Time with Masterminds. I am Cynthia Rojas and I want to welcome our viewers throughout the US and around the world and our listeners in Australia. We have a great show, and I’m going to get started because it’s going to be packed with great information. Joining me is Anne Yurasek from Fio Partners, and my amazing co-host, Pieta Blakely. Hey, guys! How are you?

0:01:43 Pieta Blakely

Good to see you.

0:02:08 Cynthia Rojas

Good to see you. I totally messed up that introduction. I have to tell our viewers the weird thing that when you are taped, when you’re doing a show you look at this dot in your computer and every once in a while, you’re wondering, why am I staring at a dot? I started thinking that it completely lost my train of thought so I apologize for that.

0:02:14 Pieta Blakely

Sort of like a view, like spell the same word over and over becomes completely unfamiliar?

0:02:22 Cynthia Rojas

Definitely, definitely. Like cinnamon, I don’t know how to spell that word. I don’t even know how to say it. Welcome! How good to see you.

0:02:30 Anne Yurasek

Great to see you both very happy to be back here at Coffee Time with Masterminds, really excited to continue the conversation.

0:02:57 Cynthia Rojas

Oh my God! Yes, The last time we spoke was in October 2022. And you were telling us why strategic planning is so important. But there was something that I wanted to say because we do have some listeners. They are in Australia and they don’t see the show. But you have this wonderful background vibe going on with your background and all we see is your face. It’s perfectly lit up and I love it.

0:03:01 Anne Yurasek

Office clutter.

0:03:07 Cynthia Rojas

I love the look. Wow, All right. And Pieta, how are you today?

0:03:10 Pieta Blakely

Oh! good.

0:03:28 Cythia Rojas

Cool, Okay! Well, to remind our viewers about what strategic planning is and why is it important for nonprofit organizations? I thought we’ll start that question with you. And why is this so important? What is it about strategy?

0:04:31 Anne Yurasek

So first of all, happy to be back talking about the thing that I love most about our role here at Fio. A lot of our work is strategic planning. And I think there is not a kind of work that I love more for geeky super nonprofit consulting.

But strategic planning is all about alignment. You know, strategic planning, people say it’s a document, it’s a little bit of research, it’s you know, bringing in your client voices. But more importantly, it’s about alignment of leaders of the organization, staff and board having a very clear picture about the future that they’d like to move into, and what are the steps to get there. We call it a lot of different things. It’s a document, it’s this, it’s that but most importantly, if it’s done well, the board and staff and even external community have a good sense of what an organization is trying to be in the world, what it’s trying to achieve, and what are its priorities as it looks ahead. If I could rename strategic planning, I would call it strategic learning and choice making.

0:04:34 Cynthia Rojas

Oh, I love that.

0:04:49 Anne Yurasek

It’s called strategic planning. But I think it’s really about an experience where leaders come together and learn, make some choices, capture those choices and then move forward. So it’s really near and dear to my heart and just happy to be back here and talking about it again.

0:04:51 Cynthia Rojas


0:05:09 Pieta Blakely 05:

That reframing, I think the name Strategic Planning, kind of turns people off. Partly because I think we create, it’s sort of like evaluation hesitancy to create documents that don’t get used?

0:05:33 Anne Yurasek

Absolutely. It’s either a binder, or people have post traumatic strategic planning disorder, done it. And it’s like, it’s gone badly. Like it took a year and a half, or the consultant wasn’t a good fit or something went wrong in the middle, like the executive director left, you know, I mean, people have a lot of like, anxiety and emotion, when you start to say, oh, my God, we need to do planning again.

0:05:31 Pieta Blakely


0:05:36 Anne Yurasek

Whether it’s the board or the executive director.

0:05:41 Pieta Blakely

What if I don’t feel like we executed the last plan?

0:06:19 Anne Yurasek

We didn’t execute the last one, it didn’t go well, we didn’t use it, we spent a lot of money on it. And nothing changed, right? And so we really have to help people take a big giant deep breath. Because if there was ever a moment to do planning, it’s now,  I have to say there’s an enormous amount of demand right now, as people are coming out of COVID to be like, What is this new world? And how do we choose our path in this new context? So, I think it’s very relevant, particularly sort of four months after the last conversation, to really be thinking about how that choice making unfolds.

0:06:35 Cynthia Rojas

That’s interesting. That’s really interesting. And so why for some organizations, it’s a document that gets put on a shelf, versus for others, their work is transformed. What’s the difference?

0:07:45 Anne Yurasek

You know, for me, it’s about how did the document get created? So that’s sort of the first piece of sort of: did a bunch of leaders sort of just by themselves go off on a Saturday morning and write something down? And then they brought it back? And then everybody was confused as to like, Well, why did we write that down and not something else? So first of all, it’s about buying and engagement kind of into what comes out of the process.

And then the flip side of that is that someone’s paying attention, that board and staff leadership agree that this is the work to be done. And that we’re going to look at it periodically to help guide our priorities on a quarterly basis on an annual basis. Someone has to care that the document was written and kind of hold it up at moments in time to say, Are we making progress against these things? If the document gets written, and people either were included, Don’t understand it. You know, I recently had a client that had a 220 pages strategic plan? And the staff were like, “What are we supposed to do with it?”

0:07:46 Pieta Blakely


0:07:56 Anne Yurasek

They didn’t even know how to operationalize it. And so I mean, I think sometimes it’s a true story sent, going through.

0:08:04 Pieta

But i think, Not knowing how to operationalize it is very common, even if the plan pages are long.

0:08:39 Anne Yurasek

It’s 200 pages, No. And I was like, Well, what’s in it? You know, was it a magical novel, like haikus? Yeah, you know, and it’s that people sometimes take like, there is this misnomer about what is a strategy versus an operational plan, versus a business plan versus a detailed work plan. Like we have all these words that we throw around? And I think in the consulting space, like it’s not helpful to our clients to have all these different terms.

0.08:40 Pieta Blakely


0:09:56 Anne Yurasek

And so when someone’s embarking on strategic planning, you know, my strategic plan could be somebody else’s business plan, somebody else’s business plan is someone else’s operating plan. I mean, it’s a little ridiculous. And so, you know, the board and staff have to be really clear as they’re undertaking planning, like, what are we really talking about? Like? What are examples that we could look at?

So, I love when boards and an IDI are sort of beginning to think about planning with a senior staff or senior group to say, let’s look at some other people’s strategic plans, like, let’s look at some other organizations in our field.

 Let’s look at some other organizations down the street, who do we know that sort of recently finished one, so that they can get a flavor for sort of, what are these things in these documents? Or what does it end up looking like in the world? What’s included in it? What are the kinds of components that it might have? And in a lot of ways, which one kind of resonates with them as an organization? And it just helps like orienting people to be like, what are we actually creating that captures our strategic decisions that we may want to share with our community? It’s a great way to get that conversation started with a board that maybe hasn’t done planning yet, or is just beginning to dip their toe in it.


I love it. I love it. And so one of my pet peeves about strategic planning is that they are so involved, they heavily involve board members. And many times. And sometimes, board members are the most removed from the work. And if I were waving a flag, I would want that flag to be that the planning process should be staff led. Wwhy are board members instrumental in the strategic planning process?

0:12:23 Anne Yurasek

Well, I think if I were to be really candid, I think this is something that the sector needs to really grapple with right now, which is who leads involved in planning, whose voices are at the table for decision making, I would absolutely agree with you that there’s sort of a historical orientation, if you read any kind of like introduction to boards, like being responsible for the overarching strategy is something that a board should be cognizant or should be responsible for how a board leaves that out though, is really different. You know, you’ve seen one board involvement in strategic planning, you’ve seen one. And I think, in many ways, the traditional model, which is a board level committee that drives the process, is hierarchical.

To your point, it doesn’t always involve staff and community members. And it’s not in some ways, what I’m typically sometimes recommending, as we go forward, we need to have more inclusive participatory processes that include more voices. So sending board members off on a Saturday morning with some doughnuts, and some good information isn’t enough, you know, we’ve got to really be thinking about inclusion. And so I think I agree with you that this kind of holy board driven strategic planning is disconnected from both staff and community. And we really need to be thinking about it differently.

You know, board members can play really supportive roles to planning, they can bring their expertise to the conversation, they can participate on a planning committee, they can be engaged and be curious and learn right alongside staff. But the Holy board only driven process is really not what I am certainly recommending to clients these days.

0:12:29 Pieta Blakely

On the flip side, I think the staff can tend to be too close to the work.

0:12:30 Anne Yurasek

It’s true.

0:12:45 Pieta Blakely

Right? Every day, it’s hard to get out of that and think about other possibilities. And that is what the board might bring to it. Right?

0:13:44 Anne Yurasek

And so I love to see, Pieta, committees that have a nice balance of board and staff. So two or three, four board members, two or three staff members. And I’m really encouraging clients to try to be kind of bold and brave about who else is at that table.

 Can they invite an external community partner, can they invite a client or a participant? That’s really readiness. And because in some ways, you don’t want an organization to do that, if they don’t have kind of the muscle of inclusion, the ability to compensate those individuals for their contributions.

 There’s kind of a lot that goes with that slightly bigger table. But I am encouraging people to be a little bold, who should really be helping you make these choices. It doesn’t always have to be a super internal insular process. And then a lot of people are like, Oh, we don’t want people to see our dirty laundry, well, if you have dirty laundry, like, let’s deal with it. And if you plan to addresses it.

0:13:47 Pieta Blakely

You will have another problem

0:14:23 Anne Yurasek

You will have another problem, right? But we can’t be afraid to admit that, you know, our organizations aren’t perfect, right? They’ve made mistakes. Our organizations are evolving and changing both in their work and in their context. And so being willing to bring in external voices into that leadership group, in partnership with board members, I think is really powerful. inviting other volunteers in. I mean, I think there’s a lot of things that we can do with the leadership of these processes that would be more expansive and participatory going forward.

0:14:50 Cynthia Rojas

So yeah, So Fio Partners is very, you know, pushes or invites organizations. organizations to think about bringing in other voices, how successful is that? Are nonprofits open to that? Or are we still having to work through some of those barriers?

0:16:44 Anne Yurasek

I think it’s a work in progress. And I mean, I think we have some really nice historical examples that are not recent. So, libraries have huge opportunities to have very big planning committees. And so I ran a process maybe a decade ago that had 17 people on it. But it was five board members for staff, three community members to community partners, and it was just a bigger decision making group. And so, you know, I think for clients now, and I think it’s a combination of things.

And I think it’s COVID. I think it’s virtual versus in person, I think there are barriers to participation. Cracking this nut around deeper participation of external kinds of stakeholders in what is historically an internally driven process is definitively a work in progress.

We’ve still got a lot of work to do for nonprofits to figure this out. But there are many examples where people are really running more community driven processes, where actually the community is leading the strategic planning process, we’re leading kind of an effort for which the nonprofit is a support to that process. And so it really depends.

I’ve been in some circles and discussions on these issues. And people are like, well, of course, we would do that. We’ve been doing that all the time. Right. And so this nuance around kind of, where’s the client’s voice? community voice, participant voice is very organization dependent. For some organizations, they have been doing it this way for 20 years.

 I think we have other organizations that have been super hierarchical, and like the board just figures it out and then comes down from the mountain with a tablet and the staff is like, what are they thinking? But that’s okay. You know, I mean, I think there’s a lot to unpack there. But I think it’s a work in progress for sure.

0:16:48 Cynthia Rojas

It is demoralizing, though as staff. Go ahead, Pieta.

0:17:06 Pieta Blakely

So, as a board member. And right and this conversation comes up we’re going to do planning. What kind of questions can I ask? Or, you know, how can I contribute to this conversation to help build a productive process?

0:17:57 Anne Yurasek

So, part of it is understanding, even affording that board member that’s asking questions, how long have they been with the organization? So asking questions like, Well, what was the last strategic planning process? Like? Who did we include? Did we actually use that document to guide our actions and behaviors? And if we didn’t, why? So part of it is being a board member who’s curious about the history of planning.

And then I think it’s about engaging fellow board members in a conversation that says, what do we not know? You know, if we could rename strategic planning, I would say, what do we not know today that we need to better understand to help make our choices for the future? And if we look at this as a learning journey, you know, oftentimes board members will be like, Oh, I’m going to be honest, I don’t actually know what this organization does.

0:18:01 Pieta Blakely

I think that’s actually really honest.

0:19:23 Anne Yurasek

Really Honest! Yeah. It’s really common. We like that I got invited here, I was at a meeting the other day where a board met, I was like, Well, why are you here? I got invited by that guy next to me, a friend. And so he invited me to be on this board. No, I’m not a dope. I don’t know anything about this course. I’m not interested, really. But I really like him.

 So that’s why I’m here. And you’re like, Okay, let’s work with that. We have to acknowledge that board members are on boards for so many different reasons that what they can do is encourage each other to be curious, like, if we’re going to write a strategic plan, what do I need to know, as a board member? To be helpful to have an opinion? And so how do we create that context for people to not be afraid, to be curious, to not rush these processes? Like if I could just say to board members, anyone who thinks that you should do strategic planning and less than 90 days, and it should be super participatory? Like, please, let’s not do that.

Where we’ve tried to do that, and it doesn’t go well. And so we have to realize that if we want processes that include boards that include community voice, they don’t happen quickly, and they shouldn’t happen quickly.

0:19:45 Pieta Blakely

Now, one of the things that I’ve seen in a while, is when you’re talking about strategic planning

When you’re talking about any kind of planning process, the staff hang on and talk amongst yourselves.

0:19:57 Anne Yurasek

For strategic planning, like sometimes you just have to stop the process.

0:21:10 Pieta Blakely

This is how the process goes, some of my participants are feeling anxious about this process, yes. For the staff, your staff and not for profits are really, really close to the work, right. And the work is usually real people, that they feel very strongly about it.

And they’re very connected to it. And when you’re thinking about doing a planning process, and you’re saying, like, there are potentially big shifts here, there are programmes that could shut down, there are lines of activity that we might not do anymore. They’re potentially groups of people that could be excluded from getting our services.

From the perspective of the staff, this kind of conversation is really scary, right? It’s really threatening to the communities that they build the relationships that they’ve built in their jobs, they put their identities in their jobs. And I think for all of those reasons, it’s got to be a really slow process, right? The board and the leadership that want to make really big sweeping decisions, and that’s great, right? And they really should, but they need to do it in a way that’s sensitive to how scary it’s going to be for some people.

0:21:36 Anne Yurasek

And increasingly, I mean, I really want organizations, both board and staff, to be so much bolder, about inclusion of staff and decision making, at all levels, about providing a voice around bringing people along and what they’re learning in the process. I mean, the worst thing that you can do is launch a strategic plan that has a programme closure, and no one has heard about it.

0:21:37 Pieta Blakely

Right? Yes, Yeah.

0:22:26 Anne Yurasek

You know, what, what should be happening is, you know, we’ve done some learning about the outcomes of a particular programme, we’ve learned that there’s two or three competitor programmes that have opened on the same road, we’ve learned that, you know, our programme really struggles because we have different funding sources.

And so we can’t offer the same thing. You know, staff are not stupid. They know they’re losing money, they’re running an under-resourced programme that may not be working, and they’re in it. And they, in some ways, it’s sort of like, how do we treat them with dignity and respect that this is information that they can handle? I mean, that they can learn in partnership about their own.

0:22:37 Pieta Blakely

And how do we frame it, the best way to meet our mission in this area is not necessarily to run our own programme. That doesn’t mean it’s not important. This is not the right way for us to serve it.

0:24:24 Anne Yurasek

Yeah. And we can do, I think the other really powerful thing about planning, and it is about learning, and it is about choosing, you know, but there are also moments in the process where that learning raises up alternate perspectives, raises up the ability to reframe something, we’re not going to stop doing this, we’re going to actually refer our clients to a stronger programme down the street, that’s better for them. And what we’re going to do is steal this ancillary piece of it, that’s a complimentary service, right? So teaching staff about programme quality and evaluation, teaching staff about kind of the ecosystem of services that their clients may be taking advantage of to say, listen, we’re in the ecosystem, we’re not the strongest player on that front, here’s what we’re really good at, let’s double down on our resources there versus being stretched so thin.

So I think there’s so much learning that can happen, when we engage staff actually, in that way to have those discussions to talk amongst themselves about what’s working really well, for my programme, what’s kind of thinking about what are the trends for the future of this programme? You know, I’m going to admit, this programme, maybe isn’t awesome, you know, or other programmes are like, this is the best thing.

There’s no one else that does it as good as we do. And we’re really good at it. And we should grow and expand this programme. You know, staff on the front line are the ones that can have those discussions, and bring those perspectives into the strategic planning process. You know, we use a tool at Fio called a programme profile, where staff fill that out, that is a team building activity for staff. And then board members read it, and they’re like, oh, my God I had no idea that we did all these things, This is amazing.

0:24:59 Pieta Blakely

I mean, I see a lot where there’s a like, hurry up and inform the board about what you’re doing. Right. And sometimes it’s just all the time, like every board meeting will have a staff presentation on what we do, but not necessarily to a particular end. Right? Not necessarily so that we can have strategic, just discussions about how to do that better. You know, it’s activity focus. This is always my concern as an evaluator. We’re talking about the activities that we’re doing, not how it connects to our mission. Right, not the outcomes and the impact that we’re having.

0:26:51 Anne Yurasek

Right! Or tying the being able to have every programmatic discussion anchored in and this is how this drives our impact on our big picture goal. And this is how this programme fits in, you know, as organizations grow. The other thing that happens is that they add lots of programmes and services. So that connection to impact becomes more and more opaque. And I think planning, you know, the other piece that I say about planning is that it is about learning, it’s about choosing, it’s about a board understanding the future of the organization’s work.

So when we’re choosing, we’re choosing this impact, right, we’re choosing a picture thing that we’re driving towards, we’re then choosing how does the work of this organization need to change to continue to move towards that impact? And so that question about the future of the work and PETA urine, we’re gonna geek out on this, but like, I love a good logic model. I love a good theory of change. Here, here’s our work today. And here’s how it’s changing for the future. Right?

And so there’s a bunch of different tools we use in the sector to have those conversations. But that’s, I mean, boards have to understand that, like, so when we’re talking about strategy, what are we really talking about? It’s learning enough to sort of choose what the future work of this organization is. And then as a board member, it’s been how does our job have to change? One of the biggest things that I think we miss sometimes in planning is the board like, this is a staff thing, you all figured out the future of the work, then you tell us what you want to do. That’s cool, when in fact, the board has to be incredibly reflective around if this is the future of this organization’s work. What does that mean for us? What’s our job? How are we contributing to moving this forward? Does this mean we have to fundraise more? Does this mean we need to be a better brand

0:26:55 Pieta Blakely

What resources or connection? Do we bring or do we not bring?

0:27:28 Anne Yurasek

Or do we need to participate? One of the greatest retreats we ran recently, the board was like, wow, we really need to do more state level advocacy work. We really need to be in the statehouse, having conversations with our legislators on these issues. And the staff can’t do it alone. And we’ve got to bring our experience and gravitas to that conversation. So all of a sudden, you’re in the planning retreat, talking about strategy, which is actually impacting systems, and you have a board realizing oh my God, I think we can help with it.

0:27:52 Cynthia Rojas

I love it. I have just two more questions, we could talk to you forever, really, I see the passion. what happens when an IDI cannot get a board to say yes to a strategic planning process?

0:28:57 Anne Yurasek

I think you got to take the board where they are. So you have to ask why. Why won’t we do planning? Why aren’t you excited about it? I think I can sell strategic planning to anyone, I think it’s the coolest thing you can do ever as an organization. It’s about learning. It’s about choosing. It’s about engaging people. It is a great team building effort.

And so the big question becomes if we have a board, that’s sort of like, I’m not so sure we want to do planning, the question is why? So being really curious, as an executive director, say, Why doesn’t my board want to do this. And if they need to lead it out of the staff, and figure out a way for one or two board members to be involved, takes a coalition of the willing, sometimes it’s not everybody, you can get a couple of board members to be engaged, that’ll usually at least connect the work to the board. I don’t think you should do it without any board involvement at all, because then they really won’t help you. But I think if we can get one or two ambassadors involved at a minimum, like that came out well.

0:29:09 Cythia Rojas

I love that. Thank you for that. And then my final question is, what are some signs that you need a strategic plan?

0:30:08 Anne Yurasek

Like you can’t make any decisions, So if you are stuck, like you don’t know if you should buy the building or sell the building, you don’t know if you should add a programme or delete a programme you’re not sure kind of what’s the future of your work and if your work is relevant anymore. You know, if you’re really struggling with this kind of a decision, you know, strategic planning is a great way to sort of level set.

Where are we as an organization and get that bigger picture figured out? Because whether or not you own the building, buy the building, lease the building, buy the building down the street is 100% tied to what you’re trying to do in the future of your work.

 So if the future of your work is unclear, you cannot decide anything because all of these things are interconnected. So my recommendation would be, you know when you need to plan when you go to your board and you say, Should we do this or not? And everybody sort of looks around the table and goes, I don’t know, what do you think?

0:30:18 Piata Blakely

Right? Or it’s completely different frames. Right? You know, responding out of a financial frame or you know, ethical frame but not a match.

0:30:21 Anne Yurasek

Exactly, Exactly!

0:30:41 Cynthia Rojas

You said in the beginning, This is about alignment. Yeah. Love that. Wow, Thank you so much. And as always, we enjoy you. We love to see how your eyes light up. When you talk about strategic planning. Anybody who’s not watching, you’re missing.

0:30:47 Anne Yurasek

I’m always happy to come. Thank you for having me.

0:30:55 Cynthia Rojas

And thank you everyone for watching and listening and we’ll see you next week. Bye. Bye.

Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

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