“For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (II Peter 1:21)
The quiet tragedy of many well conducted strategic planning processes is that the written plan gathers dust on the bookshelf of the priest, drops further and further down the parish council agenda until it finally disappears or that the strategic planning committee decides to disband after the plan has been produced. This article calls for accountability.
The structure of strategic planning
- Starts with the statement of mission
- Takes this mission into specific functional areas with broadly stated mission-based goals
- Each goal identifies focused areas of activity as supporting objectives
- Defines the pursuit of each objective with a number of action items, each with a measurable result.
In this structure neither goals nor objectives are measurable directly. They bring the strategy down from the clouds (mission) by gradual steps (broad goals and more specific objectives) to the facts on the ground (actions).
Develop clear and specific action items that can achieve objectives that support goals that are essential to the mission. Consider what effective action items look like and how to:
- Generate them
- Evaluate them
- Prioritize them
- Track them
- Keep a plan fresh by renewing them
What Effective Action Items Look Like
Each action item needs to have not only measurable results, but also a time frame, a responsible party, and notation of resources required to accomplish it.
An action item and its measurable result should be:
1) Quantified (needs to be ascertained that it has been completed)
2) Tracked (needs completed and checked off on a monitoring report)
3) Meaningful (needs to contribute to achieving the stated objective)
4) Achievable (needs to be set realistically)
5) Aspirational (needs to be set at a challenging level)
In each of the examples in the “Plan Structure” illustration, the broadly stated goal (in the area of advocacy or finance) leads to a list of all of the routes (objectives) the organization can realistically pursue to get there (a goal may well have many more than the two objectives illustrated). Then a list can be made of all of the specific actions that could be taken to achieve the objective.
Developing Action Items
To generate meaningful action items it is most effective to circulate the approved goals and objectives among staff and/or relevant parish council committees, and to ask them to identify actions they can perform to support any of the objectives. A communications objective, for example, may well benefit from an action by the outreach/evangelization committee. This approach may require some extra reassurance to staff that any new responsibilities will not just be added to existing ones, but that job descriptions and annual individual goals will be reexamined and adjusted as necessary.
As with any form of brainstorming, it is best to collect all ideas without too much evaluation, and then figure out how to use them afterwards.
Evaluating Action Items
When evaluating them it may be discovered that a suggested action item meets all of the five criteria above, in which case it can go directly into the plan draft. But, there are other options for suggestions that don’t meet all five criteria.
First, of course, if a suggested action item is not meaningful, it should be discarded. However, if it is achievable and aspirational but can’t be quantified or tracked it may be useful in a description of a goal or objective, or it may need to be shaped into an additional supporting objective with multiple action items of its own.
Prioritizing Action Items
Once a plan is fully drafted, the action items in the plan should be reviewed by the priest, staff and the parish council for several factors (the goals and objectives typically will have already been approved):
- Do the actions pass the scrutiny of those responsible for the organization (not just the proposers and the planning committee)?
- Have the responsible parties and required resources been identified correctly?
- Is the time frame for addressing each action item both appropriate and possible in light of the time required of the responsible party and other resources needed?
In the course of this last assessment, the plan can be confirmed and actions prioritized.
Tracking Action Items
Once the plan is put in place for implementation, tracking tools appropriate to the specific needs of the parish should be designed and used. The objective should be to keep the parish council and staff informed of the progress of the plan and the performance measures that affect them.
Renewing Action Items
It is often noted that we work in a context of quickly shifting conditions, and that strategy needs to be nimble. Moreover, once a parish has accomplished a year’s worth of action items, the situation will have changed enough that the remaining actions need to be changed or replaced.
If a plan is structured so that the mission-based goals and supporting objectives endure from year to year, the action items can be refreshed annually through general operating plans.
Plan Structure Example
Mission-Based Goal: Financial stability. Secure and manage the financial resources necessary to fund programs, operations and growth.
Supporting Objective 1: Ensure ongoing and increasing required revenue
Actions (Measurable Result): Increase stewardship giving 10% per year
Grow endowment by reducing draw from 5% to 2.5%
Supporting Objective 2: Initiate ongoing major gifts program
Actions (Measurable Result): Receive minimum of five gifts of $10,000+ above and beyond stewardship commitment for special needs, capital improvements, etc.
Quantify and Track
There are a number of ways an action item can pass the test of these two criteria. In the two samples shown above, there can be:
- A numerical target in the measurable result (endowment draw down reduction)
- A numerical target expressed in the action item itself (increase stewardship by 10% eachyear), able to be tracked by putting the results into a report
- An action that has a clear measure of completion (receive 5 gives each in excess of $10,000 from parishioners above and beyond their stewardship commitment)
Internal and Public Plan Versions
There are two different uses for a completed plan: it is a guide to strategic action, and it is evidence of strategy to existing and current parishioners who are also stewards and prospective donors of special gifts. These two uses require different versions of the plan.
The internal version offers action items with measurable results, completion dates, responsible parties and resources required. This is too much detail for a public version, and moreover, action items are important things that haven’t done; not something to publicize.
The public version has, instead, brief descriptions of each of the goals and objectives to put them in context. An extra benefit of this approach is that each version can be refined with reference to the other. Does the description of the objective correspond to the action items identified? Are the action items necessary and sufficient to accomplish the objective as described?