Stakeholder Engagement – Getting Buy-in for your Strategic Plan

Recognizing the inefficiency that often comes with committee processes, it can be tempting to think you can develop a strategic plan in short order by just getting the “right people” in the room to power through the planning process. As tempting as that might be, what it ignores is the importance of getting buy-in and a shared sense of ownership from those who can play an essential role in the plan’s success: your board, staff, volunteers, donors, and community members.

Think about the difference between being told, “Here’s what we are going to do,” or being asked, “What do you think we should do?” The word “we” is in both, but in the first statement there is a sense of being on the outside looking in (someone else has made the decision and you will be asked to follow along), whereas the second invites you inside and suggests that your opinion is valued.

In strategic planning, you want to foster a sense of ownership among those who will be involved in carrying the plan forward. While that undoubtedly sounds good in concept, how do you achieve that buy-in and still keep the process manageable? Where is the right balance? Consider these possibilities as you develop your planning process:

The steering or planning committee – Almost every planning process has a small group of people who are planning the process, handling logistics, and keeping everything on track and on time. They shouldn’t be charged with doing all the planning, but they should be charged with making sure the planning gets done (and this distinction should be conveyed clearly to board and staff). This committee offers an opportunity to engage a small number of staff and board members who are ready to roll-up their sleeves and manage the details of the planning process. Keep in mind that this kind of work is not a good fit for everyone!

Surveys, discussion groups, and interviews – Not everyone has to attend a meeting or serve on a committee in order to have input into the process. People like to be asked for their opinions and advice. Consider how you might provide that opportunity to your staff, volunteers, donors, clients and community members. On-line survey technology makes surveying easier than ever, and discussion groups and interviews can be tremendously effective for offering meaningful engagement in helping to shape the organization’s vision, identify potential priorities, and inform your environmental scan.

Planning retreat – One of the typical ways that board members become actively engaged in the planning process is by participating in a retreat that offers the opportunity for meaningful discussion of strategic issues. Don’t underestimate the value of providing your board with the time to have these discussions. Many organizations find planning retreats are a great opportunity to engage key members of the staff too.

Board meetings – As the planning process progresses, board meetings can be occasions to simply report on the planning process, or they can be used more strategically as opportunities to engage the board in the discussion of strategic issues or to respond to questions resulting from the planning process. We suggest you actively engage your board throughout the process by maximizing the use of your scheduled board meetings.

Action planning – Developing the action or work plans (the who does what by when stuff) to support achievement of the strategic priorities is primarily the responsibility of the staff and definitely the point where they should have direct engagement. As with elsewhere in the planning process, ownership for the plan will be greater if staff have a hand in developing it, so consider whether staff planning teams might be formed to provide them with meaningful engagement in the process.

Determining how much stakeholder involvement you want and can reasonably achieve in your planning process may be one of the most important decisions you make as you structure your process. It is reasonable to assume that increasing the number of people who you engage in the planning process will impact the time it takes and your planning budget. However, if one of your desired outcomes for the planning process is “shared ownership for the plan,” then give some careful consideration to how and where you engage your stakeholders.

At Starboard Leadership Consulting, we have extensive experience helping our clients find the right ways to engage their stakeholders and still manage an efficient and productive planning process. Learn more about our consulting services and find helpful articles and advice by visiting our website: There you’ll find a contact form that you can use to begin a conversation or to request additional information about our services.