Strategic Planning Can Drive DEI


For those championing progressive change in the nonprofit sector, the events of the past 12 to 18 months have elevated the importance of a full-throated commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.  While some conversations within white-led organizations have been marked by defensive declarations of past efforts to promote anti-racism, for many this has been a time of deeper (sometimes painful) reflection on policy and practices that support implicit bias and reinforce white supremacy.  Many of these organizations are committed to responding to the challenge and doing the right thing. If only they could determine what that “right thing” is.

It has been said that if you had a strategy on March 1, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was disruptive enough to make it obsolete.  Likewise, the movement for racial justice and calls for more diverse and inclusive organizations have caused many organizations to rethink organizational strategy. We may be facing a unique window of opportunity to capitalize on current momentum, build awareness around the issue, and make real, lasting change. Strategic planning provides one vehicle for organizations to press the reset button on vision, strategy, and programs to make them more equitable and inclusive.  The following steps can be taken to help ensure the process lives up to the challenge of the current moment.

  • Choosing the planning team. Typically, strategy development is shepherded by a small team of board and staff members. Recruitment of the team offers an opportunity to allow diverse voices to shape the process and signal to the rest of the organization that the planning will include, from the outset, a commitment to diversity and inclusion.  This meant including a young staff member on the team for a recent strategy development initiative at a natural history museum. For an arts organization, it meant including a Latino board member in a position to advocate for a strategy of placing art in service of social justice. Carefully consider how you will embrace diversity of thought by placing those not historically in positions of power in leadership positions.  If you are embarking on course correction in racial justice, there must be people of color on the team. And if your strategy specifically focuses on anti-racism work, people of color should not only be included, but they should also be placed in leadership positions on the team.
  • Understanding your business model. The first principle of strategy development is “know thyself”. This means building a shared understanding of who you serve, where you serve, how you serve, and how you are funded.  Current funding sources and programs are usually the “low hanging fruit” in defining your business model; but organizations typically have a fractured view of “who” and “where” they serve. You often hear such claims as “we serve all of the people of our city” or “we serve the entire tri-state region.”  In these early “taking stock” conversations ask to see the stats. What is the demographic breakdown of the people you serve?  Where do they live and work (down to the zip code)?  What are the demographics of your staff? This information is almost always eye-opening, particularly for board members.  And it creates a solid foundation for a conversation that separates the desire to be inclusive from the reality of who is actually served by your programs and how they see themselves reflected in your staff.
  • Defining and leveraging your strengths. The news (usually) isn’t all bad. There are areas of strength for your organization and one of the key principles of strategy development is leveraging those strengths to advance your mission. Whether this is a policy that advances your efforts in DEI, a team of diverse staff members, or an increasingly diverse board of directors, taking stock should include a look at the places where there are signs of greater inclusion and diversity.  Identify those and make plans to build on them.  For example, if you have created a foundation of increased diversity through hiring (a strength) you may want to consider ways to leverage the networks of new hires to increase community engagement and advance equity in access. A word of caution: assess your strengths with a measure of humility.  You may have made important progress in recent years but there is so much more to be done and so many people and organizations out there who can help.  Getting support for more change will certainly call on us to acknowledge and consolidate past wins, check ego at the door, and open ourselves to adapt more.
  • Deciding how you evaluate strategy options. The development of a strategy screen, or set of decision-making criteria, is one of the hallmarks of La Piana’s Real-Time Strategic Planning process.  Before selecting a strategic direction it is important to ask: how will you choose among possible options?  We typically begin by offering three criteria and building a full set of criteria from there: 1) Is this the best way to achieve your mission? 2) Does this leverage your competitive advantage (differentiating strengths)? And 3) How does this advance racial justice?
  • Testing strategy. Once you’ve tentatively chosen a strategy – particularly if it involves a significant pivot for your organization – you’ll need to engage important stakeholders in reviewing it and providing honest feedback.  For organizations committed to DEI, this will necessarily involve engaging diverse opinions and voices, particularly voices representing the communities directly impacted by the strategy you are testing.  Intentionally include the voices of people from traditionally under-represented groups.  If your strategy involves a shift in your approach to inclusion, garnering their feedback can protect your organization from both actual missteps and from coming across as purporting to be more enlightened than you are.  Listen and adjust both your approach and the words you use to describe it.  Sometimes your harshest critics can become important allies if you allow them to shape your understanding and sharpen your self-awareness. Testing strategy with stakeholders is an excellent vehicle for double-loop learning in which after reaching early, tentative decisions, you can view them once again through a broader lens and understand how those decisions were shaped by the (sometimes limited) perspectives of the people involved in the developing your strategy.
  • Once strategy is defined for the organization, you’ll need to drive that strategy into your programs and operations with planning.  Planning can and should be radically inclusive.  That means including everyone in the planning process who will be involved in implementing the strategy or, as disability rights advocate, James Charlton, says: nothing about us without us.  Give people tools and coaching (if needed) to engage in planning for their organizational unit.  The result will be a more inclusive process, greater enthusiasm and buy-in, and activities at the program and operations level that demonstrate you will “walk your talk” in building a more inclusive organization.
  • Committing resources. Good intentions aren’t enough.  Inclusion in the processes of strategy development and planning are a great start but implementation is where the rubber hits the road.  If your strategy is a course correction with respect to DEI, make sure you allocate the resources to make successful implementation possible, whether that means allocating funds for a DEI consultant, increasing your presence in a particularly underserved area, paying for diverse language capacity, or hiring new staff.

An authentic response to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion isn’t something that can be achieved without committing attention, time, and resources.  Strategic planning provides an opportunity to adapt thoughtfully in these challenging times.  Addressing DEI with intention during strategic planning can be an important intervention in and of itself – embracing an inclusive process signals your organization’s commitment to being more inclusive and, in many instances, a departure from business as usual.  In a process at least partially focused on DEI, the resulting strategy can drive your equity vision into programs and community engagement to make lasting impact.

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