Choosing a strategic-planning facilitator

Laura Otten, director of the Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business, discusses how to choose a facilitator for strategic planning.

When selecting a facilitator for a strategic planning initiative, a nonprofit should definitely use an outside adviser. An insider would be unable to participate in the content of the discussion as a neutral facilitator, and you don’t want anyone in your organization to be silenced in such a crucial planning process.

Additionally, bringing in an outsider lends you some objectivity. No matter how hard we try as a board or staff member to be unbiased, we all tend to get myopic.

And finally, your choice should have ample experience. Can you train someone to facilitate? Absolutely. But on the other hand, an untested facilitator who ends up being not-so-skillful could damage the entire process.

Where to look

The first place I would look is to my peers. Talk to other groups that have recently gone through a strategic-planning process and get their feedback.

Don’t simply accept “great facilitator” or “horrible facilitator” as an answer, though. You should probe to find out why the group felt that way. Sometimes it’s not that they’re categorically a bad facilitator, but that they just weren’t a good match for the organization or its particular planning problem.

Also go to your funders. Remember though, a recommendation from a funder shouldn’t necessarily be given more sway than that of a colleague. Everyone has to do their own due diligence.

Making final decisions

Ultimately you should choose someone with experience, but that experience doesn’t necessarily have to be in your field.

You’re looking for someone to facilitate, not to be the brain. So does it matter whether your facilitator has a deep knowledge of environmental issues or child care? The most crucial aspect is that he or she be adept at facilitating on the particular process your organization is attempting to implement.

On the other hand, having someone with ample experience in nonprofits is key, given that nonprofits do strategic planning differently than for-profit groups. Nonprofits tend to make it a more inclusive process. So it’s important that your facilitator understand and value the way nonprofits do strategic planning, that he or she be willing to hear the voices of all staff members, of the board, collaborators, and funders and to weight them equally.

Finally, it’s important to make sure your chosen facilitator is a good match for your organization.

I would encourage the group to sit down and ask what they need in facilitator. If it’s a rowdy group, perhaps you need a stronger facilitator. On the other hand, if your staff is mousy, you may need someone who can really pull out the participants.

Sometimes demographics can be important. It shouldn’t be the deciding factor, but if your group is going to respect someone more from a certain demographic, and you have two equally qualified facilitators, then let it come into play.

Once you’ve chosen a facilitator, don’t forget to make sure you agree on how your strategic-planning retreat should go. Though you’re looking to the facilitator to manage your retreat, catering to your group’s culture can make or break a planning process.

Questions like whether to include break-out groups can be critical. For example, some groups are used to doing everything together, and they’re going to want to hear what someone has to say directly instead of just getting a summary of what the other group talked about. In this case, break-out groups at your strategic planning retreat are not going be a good experience.

And when scheduling, consider if  it is an organization that likes a lot of breaks, or one that prefers to plow on through?

But be sure you let your facilitator do his or her job in a neutral manner. We often talk about readiness factors for strategic planning, and if you’re not going to go into it open and unbiased, there’s no point in doing it.

Laura Otten is director of The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business in Philadelphia.

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