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Design Your Program - Station Strategic Planning

A strategic plan is a process that helps an organization to achieve its mission efficiently and effectively. It helps an organization's management and board decide what is important and how best to use its resources. Unlike an annual budget or operating plan, a strategic plan looks beyond a one-year horizon, enabling the organization to set and reach long-term goals.

Public media organizations vary widely in their approach to strategic planning based on their size, governance type, funding history, and experience. In spite of these inherent differences, there are some basic principles to keep in mind in strategic planning:

  • Make decisions based on data and your best understanding of the current environment.
  • Be intentional in your approach to planning.
  • Be clear and open with your staff about the process.

This overview provides additional suggestions about strategic planning. It does not address every planning issue public media organizations will have, but it is broadly applicable, especially as you think about strategic planning and major gift fundraising.

Topics of Interest
Topics of Interest

The Connection Between Strategic Planning and Major Gift Fundraising

Two truths hold for all public media organizations irrespective of size, history or licensee type:

  1. In order to diversify and strengthen non-governmental funding sources, strategic plans are a necessity.
  2. Strategic planning is as essential to effective major gift fundraising as it is to good governance.

Major donors and foundations assume your organization both has and uses a strategic plan to govern and guide your station. In fact, most charitable foundations consider a strategic plan a prerequisite for funding. This is because a strategic plan, and especially a plan that is regularly used by the staff and board for making decisions and allocating resources, is an indicator of good governance.

All donors want to be assured that the organizations they support are intentional and focused in their use of resources — in brief, well-governed. Major donors, individuals and foundations, want to know that their funding is supporting a project or an organization that has a strong likelihood of success and that their support is adding to the overall strength and health of the organization. If potential donors read your strategic plan and know that their gift could be central to, or could leverage, a range of activities they value, your case for support is strengthened.

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Uses of Your Strategic Plan

Your multi-year Strategic Plan (MS Word file, 54KB) will serve as your organization's primary document for describing your organization's purpose and goals for both internal and external purposes. Additional guidance on approaching the five strategic areas of focus suggested in this outline can be found in Planning Tools and Provocations (PDF, 739KB), prepared for Public Television's Affinity Group Coalition Planning Project.

Elements of your strategic plan, such as your mission, vision and values, are useful externally in your Case Statement (PDF, 75KB) on your website, in funding proposals, in marketing and fundraising materials, in on-air fundraising, etc. While it may seem that you are spending a lot of time developing your strategic plan, it pays off in making it easier for you to craft fund development materials that link to your organization's goals.

The strategic plan is equally important in ensuring that your internal messaging and operations are in sync. It enables current (and in-coming) staff, board and volunteers to share common goals, expectations and language to describe your station's work. This remains true throughout the years the plan is in effect.

There are additional uses of a strategic plan in guiding good governance practices. The strategic plan is useful for tracking your station's progress against stated goals. Discussions about your progress vs. plan should be a regular part of Board and staff meetings. The strategic plan can also be used as the basis for developing annual action (or operating) plans (MS Excel, 29KB); for writing job descriptions; and for assessing the managements', and other staff members' annual achievements.

In short, the plan serves as the basic document for regularly assessing whether your station has accomplished your goals. These assessments can be summarized in updates to major donors, community partners and in your annual report.

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Your strategic plan should be developed before your Case Statement for major gift fundraising. The strategic plan is the higher level, all encompassing articulation of your organization's purpose, goals and objectives. The strategic plan should answer the question essential to fundraising, "How can our station continue to be relevant, essential to our community and worthy of their support?" In answering these questions, you are doing the groundwork needed to draft a Case Statement as well as to write development, marketing and other department plans.

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The Strategic Planning Process

The planning process helps your key stakeholders step back, think, debate and plan the station's future. The written strategic plan (MS Word file, 54KB) that results from this process is a clearly articulated document describing your organization's: purpose (typically mission, vision, values) (PDF, 341KB); multi-year goals and strategies; and the environment in which you're operating (typically the media business climate and competition, technological, cultural and demographic shifts among your audience, etc.). A good strategic plan provides a document that major donors, funders, current and in-coming staff, board, volunteers and community partners can all use to understand why they should invest their time, treasure and talent in your organization.

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Getting Started

Strategic planning requires a well-designed process that uses participants' time efficiently and draws from current and accurate data.

One can not overstate the importance of careful preparation for planning (PDF, 357KB). Setting up: a planning team; clear reasons for developing a plan; a planning process and calendar; as well as goals and expectations for your strategic planning process nearly always saves you more time in the long run than it requires in up-front preparation. Ensuring that participants' expectations and responsibilities are clear from the outset and that the process is well-understood by all involved can help avoid serious misunderstandings later in the process.

It is important to communicate to the full staff and board throughout the planning process. Strategic planning, like any potential change in the workplace, can provoke staff anxiety. Staff may assume changes are being planned that will affect how they do their work, or even the existence of their job. It is helpful after the planning committee develops a "plan to plan" (PDF, 357KB) and schedule for the planning process to update all staff on:

  1. Why you are developing a strategic plan;
  2. Who will be involved in the smaller planning committee;
  3. What the process will be;
  4. How and when staff and board can have input;
  5. How final decisions will be made and by whom;
  6. What you anticipate the final product to look like and how it will be used.

The more transparent an organization is about the planning process and outcomes, the less anxiety will develop among those less involved in the planning process.

It is important to manage stakeholders' (staff, board, volunteers, community partners, community members at large) expectations about how much impact their input will have and to be clear about who the final decision maker is. A common understanding of these issues at the beginning of the process helps enormously in creating: a trusting atmosphere; an effective planning process; a plan that is widely embraced; and a willingness among staff and board to adopt an intentional and plan driven culture. This is especially true in stations that have a history of grass-roots decision making and less hierarchical organizational structures.

There are many approaches that can be taken to crafting a strategic plan. Decide which approach fits your organization, while also pushing to take a clear-eyed look at your station's place and role in your community. This is a good time to ask challenging questions, to be open to new ideas from expected and unexpected sources, and to have conversations that span departments and levels of seniority. To get started, consider the exercises and suggestions for station planning that were developed by the public television Affinity Group Coalition in the 2006 pamphlet "Planning Tools and Provocations" (PDF, 739KB). While developed with public television stations in mind and somewhat dated, a number of the planning tools remain very relevant and useful to public media organizations.

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Who Should Be Involved

No matter what type of governance structure you have at your station, it is generally the senior executive or senior management team who needs to take the lead in ensuring a strategic plan is developed, regularly reviewed and updated. But, if the executive at the station "isn't a strategic planning type" — don't let this stop you. The executive should empower a senior staff person or board member to take the lead and then strongly and publically support them.

The station should identify a planning committee of typically 5-9 people (senior staff and/or board members) with a clear leader. If you are a community licensee with a governing board, they (or a planning sub-committee of the board) should be deeply involved either with staff, or as committee working parallel to the staff committee. If you are a university or state licensee, engage the board members you can and get input from your advisory board.

If you don't have or have not updated your strategic plan recently, you should decide whether you want external assistance in designing and facilitating your strategic plan. Most organizations should be able to update their plan annually by themselves and only need to call in an objective, outside facilitator every few years when a new plan is needed, or when the environment changes radically and the organization's strategy needs to be dramatically reconsidered.

If the process is well-designed, strategic planning can lead to very productive conversations within your organization. After framing the planning approach, tell your full staff what you are doing and how the planning process will work. (The manner with which you will bring them into other planning meetings and retreats will depend upon the size of your organization.)

After the planning committee has identified key questions and issues, it is helpful to have conversations that span organizational boundaries (departments, seniority, function, etc.). Typically, these discussions lead to more effective and thoughtful strategic plans than if one or two people write the plan themselves. At the same time, these discussions can improve organizational dynamics and increase staff and board buy-in to the plans. Don't underestimate the potential value of either new staff members, or long-serving staff members who may not have been invited to participate in previous strategic planning sessions!

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Data and Input to Use in Strategic Planning

Your strategic plan should be based on data and your best understanding of your current situation. Stations have a range of "hard" (quantitative) data sources (PDF, 474KB) that can be used when developing your strategic plan.

Strategic planning is also an ideal opportunity for collecting important "soft" (qualitative) data — engaging internal and external stakeholders in conversations about the purpose, goals and direction of your organization.

Many stations find it useful to gather community input (PDF, 648KB) for their planning process through online surveys or community listening sessions with key partners. As funding becomes more and more dependent on local donors, this is critical to understanding what content and services your local community needs and wants from your station.

Increasingly, stations understand that you need to go outside your building to ask and learn, "How can our station continue to be relevant, essential to our community and worthy of their support?" And as the adage goes, "If you want money, ask for advice." Conversations with current and potential major donors can provide useful input for your planning process.

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Annual Plan

Immediately after you create and adopt a three-year plan, it is a good idea to craft your year-one action plan as well. Inevitably, as you are involved in multi-year planning, stakeholders will suggest specific ways to achieve goals. Capture those ideas. Prioritize them and determine what activities need to be begun in year-one (or subsequent year) so that you can achieve your multi-year goals. A simple action plan (MS Excel, 29KB) can be developed at the station, board, department and individual staff levels that ties those activities to the multi-year strategic plan.

Think of the annual plan as the base of a pyramid that supports the layer above it, the multi-year goals and objectives, and the capstone above that, your organization's mission, vision and values. And, don't forget to work with your board to develop clear annual goals. They need an annual work plan and goals as well as all staff members. All levels of the pyramid should support and align the others.

When the levels of your organization are in alignment and the role of staff and board members is clear, the entire enterprise is working towards your common purpose — an organization that is relevant and essential to your community and is financially and operationally sustainable. This clarity of purpose is an important component of employee satisfaction as well as the ability to attract and use the talents of strong board members and volunteers.

The work at hand is too important and the operating environment in which public media finds itself is too challenging to function in anything other than a focused and intentional manner that respects the time, talent and resources of our stakeholders and donors.

Don't let your strategic plan sit on a shelf gathering dust!

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Planning Steps (PDF, 357KB)
Case Statement Outline (PDF, 75KB)
Strategic Plan Sample Outline (MS Word file, 54KB)
Sample Annual Action Plan (MS Excel, file 29KB)
Community Input Process (PDF, 648KB)
Data Sources (PDF, 474KB)
Additional Planning Tools (PDF, 739KB)