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How Engaging Conversations Build Better Strategic Plans
April 11, 2017

(Michelle Hunter is Director of Strategy and Alignment for The Chicago Community Trust. A version of this blog first appeared in The Chicago Community Trust’s blog.)

MichelleMartinHunterBW-150x150“How did The Chicago Community Trust create its strategic plan?”

This is a question we hear frequently from our colleagues in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors who are working on their own strategic plans, and it’s easy to see why.

Strategic planning can be a complex business: cumbersome, messy and time-consuming. In fact, the very words “strategic planning” are often enough to draw sighs of despair from the most dedicated staff and board members.

Despite the challenges, though, it is critical for organizations to have clarity of vision for what they want to accomplish and how they’ll know if they’ve succeeded. And when creating a strategic plan, process is almost always as important as the final product.

For the Trust, our highest priority as we developed our new plan was to ensure that we were listening to the voices of our diverse body of stakeholders as much as possible.  We viewed opening up the Trust’s work as an opportunity to cultivate transparency, participation, learning and dialogue. 

“Opening up our work has helped build trust and collaboration with our stakeholders, and served to improve our processes.”

As a community foundation, the Trust exists to improve the quality of life for all who call the Chicago region home. If we were to create a plan that had a strong chance of succeeding, we needed to find a way for our process to include the input of many, not just a few.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long for an opportunity to present itself: the year that we launched our strategic planning process was also the year of the first On the Table. 

On the Table is an annual Trust initiative. On one day a year, we invite residents of our region to come together with friends, colleagues and acquaintances to share a meal and to talk about what matters most to them and their communities.

How it works is simple: individuals and organizations sign up to host conversations on any topic of their choosing. The Trust provides a host toolkit  and a follow-up survey to learn what participants discussed.

The inaugural On the Table on May 12, 2014 drew about 11,500 participants from throughout metropolitan Chicago. We knew that the conversations would have a significant impact, not only on our region and the people who participated, but also on the direction of the Trust’s strategic plan. We eagerly awaited the results of the survey to learn what community members saw as the most pressing issues facing Chicago.

When the survey responses had been fully compiled and analyzed by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement,  we saw that the most frequently discussed topics at that year’s On the Table were:

  1. Education & youth development
  2. Community engagement
  3. Equity and social inclusion

It was uplifting to see that these and other topics that had been top of mind for us up to that point in our strategic planning process were also high priorities for community members.

Trust_logo_horizontal_CMYKIn addition, On the Table gave us the essential feedback from nonprofits we serve that the Trust’s grant application process was overly complicated, burdensome and derailing nonprofits from their missions. This input directly contributed to the launch of the Trust’s general operating grants program also known as GO Grants. The GO Grants program features a streamlined application process so that nonprofits can spend less time on the administrative work of seeking grants and more time on the vital services they provide to our region.

The experience of On the Table gave us the assurance that we needed to continue on our path of creating a strategic agenda for the Trust through 2020. And as many On the Table participants told us, the initiative provided a critical opportunity to tell their community foundation what was important to them. Opening up our work has helped build trust and collaboration with our stakeholders, and served to improve our processes.

No matter how you choose to engage your stakeholders in strategic planning, the important thing is that you engage them. It’s much easier to build full understanding and buy-in for a strategic plan among stakeholders by including them in the process as early as possible. And the plan itself will be much richer and stronger because of their contributions.

On May 16, the Trust will host its fourth On the Table and once again invite thousands of Chicagoans to engage with one another around mealtime conversations.

On the Table is a terrific opportunity to build deeper connections with your supporters and clients and to make progress together on shared priorities. If your organization is going through any kind of strategy development, you might consider using On the Table as a tool for connecting with your stakeholders. Visit www.onthetable.com to learn how.

--Michelle Hunter

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