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How to Approach the Strategic Planning Process Through an Equity Lens

group of diverse people around a conference table

When organizations first embark on their strategic planning processes, it’s often a daunting experience filled with more questions than answers. Without a crystal ball, looking out four or five years into the future can be overwhelming. Living through a global pandemic has only reinforced that we can’t predict the future, and the reality that there are certain elements we’ll never be able to directly control. 

But an organization always has the power to set the tone for how it will navigate opportunities or challenges and prioritize resources. Setting the course for the future requires vision, collaboration, and the ability to find the cross section between realistic and audacious goals. A healthy strategic plan should push you out of your comfort zone, but not so far that it’s wildly unachievable—it’s a delicate balance. 

Before you begin to build your strategic plan, however, it’s important to put equity at the forefront and consider every decision through an equity lens. There has long been a “traditionally accepted” way of doing strategic planning, but in that format, there are inherent white-dominant norms that limit the ideas that can arise. By approaching strategic planning with an intention to disrupt and challenge these norms, there’s a strong opportunity to build more cross-cultural and multidimensional strategies that will forge a sustainable path forward. And when we talk about equity, we’re talking about proportional distribution of desirable outcomes across groups. Equity is focused on outcomes, whereas equality centers on equal treatment, even though equal treatment might not lead to equitable outcomes.

If your intention is to ensure your organization leaves a positive social impact, a strategic plan without equity embedded throughout is a non-starter. Over the past several years at Mission Partners, we’ve honed in on some clear ways to make the strategic planning process a more equitable one. Below, you’ll find some tips that I’ve found most helpful when guiding our clients:

  1. Consider the people in the process. To help the strategic planning process along, you’ll likely have a steering committee in place to make decisions. When you’re gathering in person or virtually to hash out the priorities, goals, and tactics that will help you move from point A to point B, pay close attention to who participates in these discussions. Whose perspectives are you lifting up and prioritizing? Do you have a diverse team thinking through these decisions together? Is there broad engagement and stakeholder involvement? When a group is more diverse, the ideas generated can be more innovative and forward-thinking.
  2. Pay attention to power dynamics. While creating an inclusive environment, don’t forget to consider the power dynamics at play. Since your staff is likely to execute the plan, invite staff representatives who can speak to capacity and resources. Ensure there is space and time for everyone to share their opinions, and be respectful of the different perspectives everyone brings to the conversation. To create an equitable space, develop a set of grounding commitments at the beginning for how everyone should be treated, and encourage those in a leadership position to actively listen while other team members talk.
  3. Offer multiple opportunities for feedback. Though your steering committee might be just a few people, there are still plenty of ways to gather input from key stakeholders, such as board members, key donors, and the full staff. Consider sending an anonymous survey prior to the strategic planning sessions to have a clearer sense of what the full organization desires for a strategic plan, and then once a draft is in place, set up an open comment period where people can ask questions and offer comments, kudos, and concerns. It’s crucial that your extended team feels heard and valued, and implementing their feedback will be an important part of securing buy-in for the future direction of the organization.
  4. Put equity at the forefront of priorities and goals. When creating priorities and goals, equity should be present in every single one rather than sitting aside as its own individual goal. You may have heard of SMART (Strategic, Measurable, Ambitious, Realistic, Timebound) goals, but we guide our clients to use the Management Center’s technique of SMARTIE goals with Inclusion and Equity embedded within. Dig deep into what you’re proposing to see how equity fits in, as well as how you’re addressing historical and social contexts. And yes, equity and inclusion can be part of every goal and priority.
  5. Be intentional about choosing actionable tactics. The tactics you elevate to achieve your goals can play a large role in making the strategic plan more equitable. Make sure the tactics are actionable rather than passive. It’s easy to say you want to be an equitable organization that creates an environment where people of all races, genders, ethnicities, religions, ages, and abilities can grow and thrive, but what specific, tangible steps will you take to get there? Will you invest in BIPOC-led organizations? Are you committed to equitable pay within the organization? Will you overhaul the leadership team and board to hire or incorporate more people of color? Get as specific as you can, while also leaving room for flexibility as the organization evolves. Tactics can build accountability for broader priorities centered around equity.
  6. Thoughtfully choose your words. Do a close scan for the words used throughout the strategic plan. Are you using strengths-based language that elevates the inherent strengths and power people in your community possess? Do you use asset-based language that describes people using their aspirations, not their circumstances?  For instance, if your work is focused on community-building make sure you’re setting the tone for working alongside people rather than deciding what communities need without asking and listening. You can read more about language choices in our blog about equitable language.
  7. Make the design accessible to all. When your strategic plan moves to the design phase, consider reading our tips focused on equitable design. For a quick recap, we recommend that you choose photos with an eye for inclusion that are representative of people with different genders, races, abilities, body types, and ages. Go the extra step of making your design accessible for people with differing abilities by adding alt text to images to make it decipherable to a screen reader, or if you have the training, make the full document Section 508 compliant. Another way to ensure accessibility in your design is to run graphics through a colorblind simulator. Here at Mission Partners, we have extensive experience creating design materials that are accessible and inclusive, guiding clients through the creation of campaign materials, strategic plans, and rebrands. To see some of our work in action, take a look through Low Income Investment Fund’s (LIIF) strategic plan and read about our approach to CHC: Creating Healthier Communities’ visual and messaging rebranding.

Are you interested in putting equity at the forefront of your upcoming strategic planning process? Reach out to us  about Mission Partners’ strategic planning services.