Improving Board Engagement with Strategic Planning
The central purpose of today’s boards doesn’t differ much from what it’s been in the past. Board members are stewards of an organization’s mission and vision, tasked with ensuring that the college, university, or nonprofit’s current leaders and employees are successful in advancing each.
Yet the functional role of today’s boards differs a lot from the past—even the recent past. Their engagement with your strategic planning process should be different, too. Instead of asking the board to approve an already-formed plan and providing periodic updates about its progress during meetings, institutional leaders are inviting board members to take active roles in co-creating and implementing plans.
Here are three useful actions Credo experts have seen organizations take to effectively position their boards as strategic partners:
1. Be clear about the increased involvement you expect from board members.
In the past, board members’ participation requirements often included things like a minimum philanthropic gift, regular participation at meetings, and perhaps attendance at a major annual gala. There wasn’t an expectation for more robust engagement. But the challenges that colleges, universities, and nonprofits face today require a fully active board that is aligned with and invested in institutional strategic endeavors. If you want your board to meet that elevated bar, you need to define what this new kind of membership will look like, outline the expectations members must meet, and invite them to participate.
Many board members—particularly newer board members—will jump at the chance for increased involvement. Yet not everyone will want to join you on this path. You don’t want to lose those members’ support, so in advance, think of ways you can honor their service while offering them alternative opportunities to remain engaged with your organization in different capacities.
2. Issue early invitations to participate in the strategic process.
There are numerous benefits to involving boards in a strategic plan as it’s being formed, rather than afterward, including:
- Help identifying a vision: Board members have the dual advantage of seeing how the organization fits into a larger community or sector while not being bogged down in the details and politics of the institution. They can see the forest for the trees, identifying opportunities that on-campus leaders can’t. Their vision can help elevate the institution’s.
- Members have a greater stake in the plan’s success: Just as early engagement with your staff gives them a greater sense of ownership in your strategic plan, inviting board members to help shape the plan’s main themes can increase their motivation to ensure that it succeeds.
- Early financial support for key priorities: Strategic plans, frankly, require money. Board members are integral in securing the partnerships and philanthropy that make strategic plans feasible. If a board member can help shape a priority they’re excited about, they may also provide seed or endowment funding to help get that idea off the ground—or they’ll engage someone they know who can.
For some institutions, early board engagement may even lead to themes or initiatives that the board will own, expanding your capacity to implement the plan successfully.
3. Align your board’s committees around your strategic plan’s priorities.
One of the best practices we’ve seen is a realignment of the board’s workflow to support the themes of a strategic plan. This allows the board to delegate relevant tasks to the committees whose oversight covers those themes and ensures the members best suited to advise on or engage in a particular strategic area can do so. Another advantage of strategic realignment: Your strategic plan won’t push aside the other ongoing work your board must complete in a given term. Board meetings can include an update and discussion about the committees’ progress, but every meeting does not need to be fully devoted to the strategic plan.
Realignment can be complicated if it requires changes to your board’s bylaws or other guidelines. Before committing to this path, learn about any official steps that may need to be taken. However, ensuring you have the right committees working on the right tasks to serve the needs of your organization today—not the needs of the past—is a worthwhile endeavor.
There was a time when organizations—especially colleges and universities—could get by with a passive board that provided feedback about things like finances and programs. But the days of the passive board are long gone. Now more than ever, institutions need boards to be catalytic, both in creating strategies and in bringing them to life.
Find out what makes the Credo Strategic Planning process different and then schedule a complimentary 30-minute session with Credo about Strategic Planning & Implementation. We can't wait to plan with you.