As an elected leader of your community, you're responsible for establishing the direction of the community and allocating resources. To ensure both dollars and human resources get used wisely, you should adopt the practice of setting time aside to develop a strategic plan for your community. Read on to learn more about the benefits of strategic planning, tips for developing a plan, and how to make adjustments amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is Strategic Planning?
Strategic planning is the process an organization uses to define priorities, allocate resources, strengthen operations, and assess the organization's direction. An effective strategic plan articulates where the organization is going, how it will get there, and provides an opportunity to measure success. This plan should also be used to communicate the vision of the management team and community members.
Benefits of a Strategic Plan
All community stakeholders benefit when a published strategic plan guides the board or council, allowing for greater consistency and successful outcomes. Management benefits because they can proactively calendar the scheduled activities and communicate clearly with community members. For service providers, projects can be scheduled in advance, which may present better pricing opportunities. And finally, members benefit because they'll see that their contributions are being allocated strategically to meet their needs.
Creating a Strategic Plan for Your Community
You can create a strategic plan for your community using three simple steps: preparation, development, and implementation. With commitment and discipline, following this process will result in a better, more robust tool to guide current and future leaders, members, and partners.
Step One: Preparation
Before beginning the strategic planning process, it’s essential to have a general understanding of your community. To prepare, all board or council members should ask themselves the following questions:
- Do I understand the legal structure of the community?
- Do I know the financial condition of the community?
- What human resources are available to the community?
- What’s important to my members?
- What conditions are present in the general community?
Asking these questions and learning more about the community will help you better fulfill your obligations and establish a strong foundation to begin the process of developing an effective strategic plan.
Step Two: Development
Developing a strategic plan does take some time—each board or council member should prepare to invest 10-15 hours in total. It’s best to divide the time commitment into the four following tasks:
1. Defining your community's purpose and core values.
To start, your board or council should set aside a few hours of uninterrupted time to discuss your community's purpose and core values. Every community is different, and your values are influenced by your region, demographics, and size. Determining what’s most important to the members and what makes your community unique can help with this task.
2. Developing the planning session agenda.
After defining the purpose and core values, the board or council should develop the objectives of the plan. During this time, the board or council must also decide if they want to assign someone to act as a neutral facilitator to keep upcoming discussions on track and ensure everyone has an opportunity to voice their thoughts and opinions.
3. Brainstorming the master list.
The next task is creating a master list that can be used for detailed discussion at the final planning session. All participants should use this time to share ideas, priorities, and projects and determine what the community wants to accomplish in the next year, three years, and five years. This is the portion that benefits the most from the services of a facilitator.
4. Allocating resources and prioritizing.
During the final planning session, participants should review each item on the master list, estimate the required financial and human resources, and assign a priority to each item. While some items will likely gather the most support, others may be eliminated as more pressing matters are identified.
Based on the learning from each of these completed tasks, you’re able to draft a strategic plan, outlining the final list of priorities. Don’t worry about creating a perfect document, what’s most important is that you finish the plan so you can experience the benefits.
Step Three: Implementation
After the plan is in place, it moves to the implementation phase, where constant review, analysis, and modifications will occur as circumstances change. Implementing your strategic plan won’t happen overnight, and it’s necessary to incorporate the results into your reserve study and the operating budgets for future years. In general, you should begin or reevaluate your plan six months before the beginning of your fiscal year so that your next budget can include the planning results.
Successful implementation also requires regular review. It’s helpful to take some time during every board or council meeting to review progress, monitor outcomes, reallocate resources or deadlines, and communicate the results to all stakeholders.
Budget Considerations & Adapting Your Community's Strategic Plan During COVID-19
During the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, following and developing your community's strategic plan can be challenging. Because the landscape is constantly changing, you must look at your plan more frequently than usual, stay open and flexible, and try to adjust to the current situation to help as many members as possible. While your goals are important, you should focus on helping everyone cope and stay healthy—not being consumed by sticking to the plan.
The ongoing demands of the pandemic will have budget implications. As your board or council works to prepare 2021 budgets, factor in the added cost of cleaning, PPE, and staff time. Using cost data for expenses from 2020 year-to-date can be a good benchmark when projecting costs for the 2021 budget year. Also, review your current reserve study to identify any planned projects that remain incomplete due to the pandemic. You may need to adjust funds, project timelines, and more.
The longer the pandemic continues, the more likely your community will feel the economic impacts. While there was no historical framework to help guide boards and councils through the pandemic, the Great Recession of 2007/2008 provides boards and councils with insights into navigating current financial uncertainty. See our webinar on financial lessons learned from the Great Recession here.