The Power of Strategic Planning


0:04 Cynthia Rojas

Hi, everyone, welcome to Coffee Time with Masterminds. We are so happy you are here. We have an amazing guest talking about an amazing topic. Did find yourself throwing your strategic plan out the window when the pandemic hit, wondering, well, we don’t need that anymore. I’ll tell you a secret. We understand. However, we’re almost three years into our new normal and the fact is, having a strategic plan is a really powerful tool and our guest, Anne Yurasek, is here to tell us why. Join us.

0:48 CTMM Jingle

Cynthia Rojas

Hi, again. Welcome to Coffee Time with Masterminds, a 30-minute conversation for and with leaders of mission-based organizations. First, we want to say hi to our viewers from all over the world and our listeners in Australia; and if you are joining us this morning please, put your name and where you’re from in the comments. We always love to know where our listeners are coming from. And I am excited to introduce our co-host Pieta Blakely. Pieta.

1:50 Pieta Blakely

Good morning. How are you?

1:51 Cynthia Rojas

How are you? I’m good. I’m good. I’m excited about today. We’re talking about strategic planning. Yay!

1:58 Pieta Blakely

I’m excited, too.

2:05 Cynthia Rojas

And, we have a great guest. Anne Yurasek from Fio Partners has been working with organizations for many, many years. We’ll ask her how many years, but it’s been a long time. And she helps organizations plan and strategize for their future. Let’s bring Ann on.

Hi, Anne. How are you?

2:24 Anne Yurasek

Good morning, good morning. Thank you so much for having me. I am so excited to be here today with you.

2:28 Cynthia Rojas

Yeah, well, we’re excited to hear about the magic of strategic planning because we understand that it is important and it puts organizations in a position for them to move forward in their work in a way that becomes magical. So, the big question though we should begin is, what is a strategic plan and why is it important?

2:53 Anne Yurasek

So, first thanks for having me. You know, I thought a little bit about this morning. 30 minutes is just not enough time to talk about something that I deeply care about and I truly think is a transformational tool for organizations. So, what is the strategic plan and why would anyone consider doing it?

A strategic plan is actually this document at the end of a process that really needs to be a road map for leaders and staff to move an organization forward. But I think it gets a little bit of a bad rap, like as you said, Cynthia, people took these pieces of paper and sort of tossed them to the side at the beginning of the pandemic and it’s more important than ever now as we sort of come into the after times, the new normal, for really staff leadership and particularly board members to really be on the same page about what is the future of the organization, what’s the future of the work. I’m a big believer in strategic planning as a way to really align leadership. It is a thing that you get at the end but that process of getting there is even more important.

4:01 Pieta Blakely

I have to admit that when you say strategic plan, I think of like a series of binders but not like a living document. I mean how do you develop a plan or is that in the implementation? How do you make a plan that’s a living document that’s useful, that people are aware of and going back to?


Yeah, one of the things I was thinking about in this conversation was really how is planning shifting or changing kind of in this time, and I think one of the things that the pandemic has taught us is that organizations, in order to be resilient, need to be nimble. So, we need to have a North star about our vision and our work; but more importantly, we need to have a road map that can flex, that can recognize that there may be changes in the environment, and ideas that we had 18 months ago when we wrote the plan… those might not work now.

But we really need to have this agreed upon framework and so, I think in a lot of ways, Pieta, like how is strategic planning changing right now, people are moving from what may have been really detailed operational plans like we will do this, this, this, to more than what I call kind of like a guiding strategic framework which is let’s double down and really be clear about our mission, our vision, our values. Let’s get really crisp about what’s the work that we do and our aspirations for that work and how our organization needs to evolve.

But in some cases, what we’re really seeing is that again, because of the flexes in the environment, it really needs to be those goals and strategies that are written in such a way that we can kind of flex how we live them on a day to day basis; but I think in so many ways it’s getting to that roadmap that’s really the journey.

5:48 Cynthia Rojas

I love that – this idea of strategic plan should be able to flex with the times. I’m going to put that into the comments. And so, back in the day, Pieta you’re right, we used to get plans and they actually felt like some outside person developed them and then we will all have this great retreat in this fancy place and eat great food and then put it on the shelf.

6:18 Pieta Blakely

To me, the strategic planning was the retreat.

6:21 Anne Yurasek

Yeah and I think part of traditional planning is, if we go back five-six pre-COVID times, you know, part of what we have to think about is who leads the planning process. So, historically we might have said that strategic planning is a board responsibility and that in the non-profit social sector, boards are responsible for planning. You know, if it was a larger entity you may have had a situation where the staff was like, “Oh, God, please don’t invite our board to strategic planning, like we’re going to run right.

So, larger organizations you saw kind of what I would say is going to primarily staff-driven planning. I think what we’re seeing in the market right now is a little bit of a mashup; so, a lot more kind of combined staff and board teams are leading planning and then I’m also encouraging and seeing in the market this idea of that planning should actually be also led by the people we serve. And so, where can we actually create the leadership of planning processes that are actually inclusive of community leaders, inclusive of clients who receive services.

Again, it’s about proximity to decision making and I think when we’re thinking about planning that leadership of the process is really important and some organizations are like, well, we’re not really ready to put our external partners on our planning committee or we’re not ready to put clients on our… and then so we talk a lot about well then how do we bring voice into the process? So, that leadership intentionality on the process is a really important starting point.

7:49 Pieta Blakely

Yeah, I think about that a lot in terms of evaluation which I guess is the right—I mean evaluation and strategy are two sides of the same coin, right. What are we going to do and then how are we going to know that it’s working, and if it’s not working what are we going to do? Or if it is working, how are we going to do more of it or you know better of it? And I think about that a lot in evaluation like how do we not just have our staff decide what it looks like when this is working? Who else, whose voice is your strategic partners going to have a voice? Are your consumers and organizational allies going to help us say what it looks like when it’s working?

8:29 Anne Yurasek

And I think the biggest thing that we’re seeing is that I think there is an increased interest in more inclusive strategic planning processes. So, there are organizations when they’re thinking about planning saying you know this is not just an internally driven exercise. So, we really support what I like to say are the curious social sector organizations that really are ready to engage like a really wide range of stakeholder voices and so, if I think about a recent project we did in Massachusetts with a housing organization, it was about bringing to bear the voice of landlords and clients and community leaders, and stakeholders and staff and board.

There was a much wider array of voice that we were able to kind of raise and Infuse in the process. So, it’s how do we make sure that when we’re thinking about informing the future of our work it’s not—I mean honestly I mean it used to just be boards would get together on a Saturday with some donuts, they would use their own kind of experiences and this isn’t a bad thing that they’d be like from my experience in my for-profit world like this is what works in the non-profit sector and this is what we should do. And as much as in some ways those models engaged board members may have come up with kind of interesting ideas for staff to implement, it was just too much of an insular process and too much power ultimately was being held at that board level.

So, I think strategic planning is an amazing tool to sort of disrupt what I think are the pretty hierarchical structures in the sector, and you can do that in such a way that people are sort of ready for it because what it’s about learning. It’s about curiosity. It’s about not making decisions in a vacuum. And it can be incredibly powerful for an organization that has not operated like that in the in the past to really begin to build those relationships with those stakeholder groups.

10:23 Pieta Blakely

There are a couple of problems just having the board go off and do it and bring back a plan. What is the feasibility thing? If you bring something back to the office and the people who are actually doing the work realize it’s just not going to happen or it is so far outside of their experience they don’t understand how to make it happen. Like, Cynthia is always talking about how you know, the person who sits at the front desk is the most important person in your organization and they will tell you whether or not this is possible, all right. So, if they weren’t in the room when the plan was getting made it’s probably not possible and people are just going to be like what does that have to deal with what we’re doing here?

11:01 Anne Yurasek

 And so, what we really talk about is how are you including everyone? And I think that’s another kind of huge shift because of COVID, which is that we’ve seen our practice went from almost 100% in person to 100% virtual on March 13th 2020 as you both know. And that really forced us to Pivot how we did strategic planning and so, we took processes that were intended to be in person, made them 100 virtual.

But there was a huge unintended kind of consequence of that and a huge benefit which was the ability to convene a hundred people, 300 staff in an interactive experience to learn, to talk with each other about what the planning process was raising up, to have conversations about Mission, Vision and Values across departments and silos and across locations. I think it’s one of the most powerful trends like as I look ahead to planning around how do we make sure that staff that are on the front lines have as much opportunity to be included in these processes as the board member and as the senior staff member.

 I think when I think about the work we’ve done over the last couple of years it’s been because of COVID because of the increased comfort and Zoom and because of the increase in comfort in working virtually. You know, I really believe that the non-profit sector has been able to do something that the for-profit sector has been able to do forever. So, the for-profit sector is like we have enough money, we fly everybody in, we have a monthly meeting with a thousand. That’s how we get shared messaging. It’s how we get shared learning and shared experience, and for the first time, the barriers to entry to be able to do that just went away.

And so, I am incredibly optimistic about organizations that have figured out how to use these tools in planning to really bring not just the senior staff along on the journey but to bring the whole organization. So, it’s  been really encouraging to see what we’ve been able to do over the last couple of years.

13:00 Cynthia Rojas

And so, when you say bringing community voice, tell us what that means because I think we can have a lot of images in our head and it sounds like a big task.

13:15 Anne Yurasek

Oh, it is and but part of it is really sort of sitting with an organization and understanding at the beginning and doing some discovery and saying how are you including community and client voice in your day-to-day operations. So, this might be sitting with program staff and maybe sitting with program leadership and saying you know where are you getting feedback from clients? You know, Pieta kind of in the space of evaluation where are we hearing from clients about their experience with the services and how those services may be impacting them.

And so, part of the discovery about including voice and strategic planning is, how strong is that muscle already? Where are we doing that work already in our organizations? And then we can basically build from there. So, if there’s information, if there’s client data, if there’s the way to host a focus group; you know, we can sort of start that discussion about the inclusion of client voice and planning kind of where the organization is, and then really talk about what does next level look like?

Oftentimes, we’re seeing what’s emerging out of this is you know we haven’t really done this in the way that we would like to. It’s been pretty transactional. We’ve sent out surveys. And so, organizations are coming out of planning with a stronger understanding of what’s possible. How can we create a client Advisory Board? How can we create opportunities for clients to be compensated for their willingness to be an ambassador for our organization and not in their communities?

And so, I think it’s really interesting saying that it’s not it’s totally not a one-size-fits-all model here and it really kind of starts where the organization begins in terms of its client voice. But I would think that Peta as well has some perspectives on kind of client voice and evaluation as in some ways the starting point for that how are we engaging and including clients in our work.

15:03 Pieta Blakely

Yeah, and you know, it’s a similar process. I think we started out from a point where evaluation meant getting some information, extracting some data from the community or the client. And then we got to more participatory models where it was like you know, maybe we should ask them what they want to tell us about. And the vision really is eventually, oh, they’re going to tell us what is worth measuring and how.

15:40 Anne Yurasek

And I think one of the things we’re excited about is we do have some clients that are really ready to consider what I’m calling co-creation. So, oftentimes not I’m calling generally, is called co-creation. I’m not claiming that I have created that, just to kind of back that up. But it’s this idea that in some ways as planners like we will often come to the table and say, we think the natural way to do this is to do a survey. You know, we have some clients that are ready to say, “I don’t know if it’s a survey”. Is it a survey? Is it a focus group? Is it interviews?

You know, perhaps we could actually include those residents, those clients in helping to define the entire information gathering process, and it’s a readiness because not every organization is there yet. But I do think there are organizations that are like well, the consultants might think at this and even on our team I’m like guys that might not work. That really might not be the right fit for that community, and so, how do we actually help a client build some relationships in a community or in a geography or in a neighborhood and talk about what does it mean to be supportive of what this organization is trying to do?

But that’s hard, and I have to tell you, I think most organizations are transactional with their relationships with Community. They are not interested in long-term relationships. They are not interested in deeply listening and centering voice; and so, this is a stretch. This is a stretch for some of our clients. But I think it’s a muscle that can be built and should be built, and I think planning is an awesome excuse to sort of start the process of saying let’s deeply think about like what does our relationship with the community we serve look like today? What would we want it to look like in the future, and how do we actually build that together?

17:31 Cynthia Rojas

When I think about transformation and I have no data to to support this but I find myself in libraries, a lot of libraries these days. And back in the day, you went to the library to take out a book or to read a book, to be there for a very specific reason. And now, libraries are just like this amazing place to hang out in. And in New Haven, Connecticut they have this amazing library that has a café inside of it. You could be there for hours. It has a balcony. You sit outside. And so, that’s one sector that probably listened to the people that it was serving to hear how they can best serve them. Because libraries, I think they were dying at one point or had the threats of dying especially when now you could get a book online so fast without leaving the house.

18:32 Anne Yurasek

Absolutely. I had the pleasure of doing a substantive amount of library planning kind of in the 2008 to 2014 stretch and then more recently we did the strategic planning for the Providence Public Library. And again, this is this kind of existential industry threat which was, do books matter? But I think what’s also awesome about libraries is those are really curious people. Peaple who work in libraries and support libraries are really curious. Like, talk about an industry that’s open to information, that’s really interested in hearing what patrons and community members think; and so, all of the library planning work that we’ve done has deeply amplified the voice of community members. And I’m going to say, one of the very first what I call kind of like external internal planning committees was with a library. A very long time ago back into I’m not going to name the date… and so, people will often say to me well we can’t put external people on our planning community, and I’m like of course you can. Why not? You can have board members. You can have staff members. You can have patrons. And they identified three community members that were not on the board to be on their planning committee.

And so, you have ways of taking these models and really saying the way we used to do it doesn’t serve us. How can we amplify community voice in this process? And I’m going to tell you there’s a thousand different ways to do it, but you’ve got to actually have the intention to start with. And I think your rights in that libraries are naturally community oriented. If you’ve seen one library, you’ve seen one library. Like, the services in that library are responsive to the needs of the community. And so, I think what’s exciting is that I think libraries—I’m going to agree with you are a bit of a beacon for sort of a pre-COVID industry disruption transformation of the business model. How did they pivot?

We have also some awesome libraries in Connecticut like New Haven, Hartford, Wallingford; all who did kind of amazing things. Like Wallingford has a giant like maker room in the middle of its Library, that’s like a 3D printer. They’re very cool.

20:39 Cynthia Rojas

I go to the Guilford Library and they rent out games.

20:49 Anne Yurasek

But I think what’s amazing to me and I’ll come back to kind of the power of planning, is the willingness to learn. It is the willingness to be interested and curious and acknowledge there are things that you don’t know that could inform your future; and if that’s the voice of your clients, if that’s how your industry is changing you know we will sometimes get inquiry calls where people say so we’ve booked a Saturday for our board retreat we’re ready to go and it’s in three weeks. And I’ll say, but have you learned anything? What will you use to make that happen?

21:24 Pieta Blakely

 What are you going to talk about?

21:27 Anne Yurasek

What are you going to talk about? And I think part of this is how do we when people talk about planning be like this can be a very transactional exercise. You can write things down on a piece of paper. We can put them on the shelf. We can say that we did it. But it misses the point. I mean this is about learning and shared experience and how can we be curious together about our future. And I think you know when you ask me to kind of this talk I was like okay I could be here for hours because I love it right.

Strategic planning is this amazing thing but it has so many other benefits. I mean it’s the learning. It’s the alignment. It’s getting your team on the same page. It’s being able to look at it, Peta, coming back to your first question and thinking, are we making progress? What did we get done but more so, what’s changing? How are our results changing? How is our impact changing? What’s different in terms of our relationships that we have in the community? There really isn’t anything I love more than sort of seeing an organization work through some stuck points in a planning process.

I mean Cynthia and I will talk sometimes about a client that’s stuck, but going through this process at a minute moves people. It gets organizations unstuck and some of us might go into a planning process with like oh, my gosh, this is totally the next thing they’re going to do. But I will tell you it is just as magical for us as consultants when you get to the end of the process and you realize that yeah, that actually wasn’t the decision that needed to be made.

There were some other smaller decisions or incremental steps that are needed before that decision could be made; and that’s still incredibly powerful because the organization is clear about its next step. Maybe not the ultimate step, but what’s the next step. I couldn’t be more honoured to do this work because we know we’re there at a stuck point sometimes. We know people get invested in this at a point that their organization might be really struggling.

23:31 Cynthia Rojas

I get abs all the time, am I busy? And I say oh, my, very busy. Why do you think we’re so busy? Why such a uptick and strategic timing now?

23:45 Anne Yurasek

Great question. I think people are ready I think people feel as if the crisis of COVID is declining, the existential crisis if I go to a meeting I may inadvertently kill someone is declining; which means that we are ready to re-engage. Not everyone is ready to re-engage and we have to acknowledge that and that’s why some of the virtual schools are great.

But I think people are ready to take on what their future is in this new world; to learn from it to sort of say what did we start doing that we’re not going to stop doing. How has our workforce changed in the last three years? And really begin to see kind of a future that people need to kind of go after; so like hashtag go get it. Like Now’s the Time. So, I would say I think it’s a lot about finally a readiness to be like okay we got through the worst of the worst, we are now ready to kind of be able to kind of pause, reflect, and plan. And I do think that’s one of the biggest drivers.

24:56 Pieta Blakely

I think it was like It was the worst of the worst internally. I mean there was definitely a moment in 2020 when a lot of these organizations didn’t know they were still going to exist now. Externally, I think like Ann said we’re in our new normal and a lot of questions have been raised and some of what we’re talking about, about you know including stakeholder voice and not just letting your board decide what you’re going to do also has to do with questions of power and white supremacy and how organizations behave in community; and so, maybe some of the appetite to do a plan is to recognize like we’re a different organization with different values now and in a different world now with a different openness to new ideas.

25:45 Anne Yurasek

And the other thing we’re seeing is that if people had a really big push around DEI internally kind of in the 2020-2021, I mean we’re hearing from organizations a little bit of a pullback. We took some steps. We did some training. It’s important to us. We’re not exactly sure what the next steps are and how we’re going to live this and how we’re going to embed it and is it a bolt-on or is it core to what we do. And so, I was going to say another trend we’re seeing is actually the integration of kind of equity assessments running either in parallel or next to strategic planning so people are ready to kind of lean in as part of planning and reflect on what has worked in terms of our DEI, kind of building that capacity and muscle, and what are really our next steps.

26:31 Pieta Blakely

That really makes sense, yeah.

26:36 Cynthia Rojas

I was talking to someone yesterday and I had to chuckle, who said, “You know, I would love a plan that has one, five, and ten-year benchmarks. And I thought, 10 years. Now, there was a time we were planning for five and seven years, was what we did.

26:57 Anne Yurasek

The libraries did 10-year plans. So, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, libraries actually wrote 10-year plans.

27:04 Cynthia Rojas

Look at that. And so, what’s the time frame now? Like, what do you recognize?

27:09 Anne Yurasek

Three. I think it’s three. I mean I think vision, mission, and values have a longer time horizon. So, I will actually encourage vision, mission, and values to be in that five to ten-year time frame especially some of the bigger vision aspiration statements. But in terms of the goals and strategies like I think you’re looking at a three-year cycle. It keeps people close enough to the work, keeps people clear about we don’t have to figure everything out, but we can sort of figure out what feels good for sort of like this stretch. I do think Fio has a tendency to write plans that are written for three and then people call us at three and say we’re not done yet and we need a little more time and so they give us more time.

But I also think that’s the power of the framework. What we often say is write this for three years. The goals and strategies sometimes are powerful enough that you can get a couple more years out of them because they’re written at a high enough level and then you’re doing annual planning against the framework. So, I think in some ways, again, Pieta, I’ll come back to your first question. How do we make sure this isn’t a binder? It’s really embedding it in the management practices of the organization. But I think if you write it for three but you write it in kind of a framework that can kind of maybe have an extended time frame, you can sometimes get to five.

But what I also say is that your information base by the time you’re at three years is stale. So, what people thought three years ago about you is now no longer the case and so, if you’re going to extend plans like we’re going to do an add-on for a year I say just validate it, like do a staff survey. Do a board survey. Do some listening externally just to make sure that it’s still fresh and relevant and that you’re updating those strategies and tactics with some new information because it’s just old. And so, I definitely am seeing some people in COVID not be ready to kind of ask all the big questions again. And so, sometimes that incremental information base can be helpful.

29:07 Cynthia Rojas

Yeah, or you develop a plan that evolves with the times right, because it would have been enough to just have a global pandemic; but we had the murder of George Floyd and what that did to our nation and internationally. And then we are now in the middle of the great resignation and then we’re up for a new presidential election. And so, it just doesn’t end. No, oh wait, are we out for a—no we’re not having a pre—Pieta…

29:38 Pieta Blakely

Not this year.

29:40 Cynthia Rojas

Not this year. I re-registered to vote. So, I have a lot of things and Pamela comes on my Instagram every day. So, I’m like, she must be campaigning. Anyway, it’s just one thing after another; so, if anything, your plan should be able to evolve or help you pivot and that should be part of the plan I would imagine.

30:04 Anne Yurasek

it is and I think we often talk about you know systems to monitor implementation key measurable results that the organization should be kind of driving towards at the organization-wide level. But again, I really sort of say is this has to work for you and your management team. It’s got to work for you when you’re bored. You’ve got to develop the systems to kind of set the road map and then say, how often are we going to look at the map? You know, every six months or so, we should really pull this out, talk about how we’re making progress, talk about things we’ve added; talk about what we’re learning even as we Implement. And again, you know, a strategic plan is a moment in time and it has to be able to flex and allow the organization to continue to learn and respond to the environment.

30:49 Cynthia Rojas

That’s awesome. Well, we are out of time, and you are so right, Anne. We could talk about this for another hour, but if someone were thinking about it or if we have a listener that’s a leader that thinks of plans as something you put on the bookshelf, what would be your words of advice?

31:09 Anne Yurasek

You know, we often also have post-traumatic strategic planning disorder; troubled strategic planning experience. So, what I would ask people to do is put the strategic plan in kind of

methodology and stuff to decide just for a second and engage your senior staff, your board your frontline staff and saying, what do we need to learn? What are we curious about? What do we not know today that should inform our future? And that conversation is the basis for the strategic planning work that should be undertaken; and so, really just starting with learning curiosity. What does our board want to know? What does our senior staff want to know if we needed to make decisions about our future? And that kind of generative discussion really should be the basis for launching into a planning effort.

31:58 Cynthia Rojas

Yeah. Thank you, thank you so much. All right, and thank you to our viewers and

listeners and we will see you next week same time. Take care.

32:07 Anne Yurasek

Thanks for having me.

32:08 Pieta Blakely

Have a great weekend everybody. 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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