January 10, 2011

Helping Boards and Executives Understand Strategy

One of my favorite recent nonprofit-management books is Mission Impact: Breakthrough Strategies for Nonprofits, which was published last year by John Wiley & Sons.

The author, Robert Sheehan Jr., is a teacher and administrator at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. Before joining the university, Dr. Sheehan spent more than 30 years in nonprofit executive-management positions, including 18 as a chief executive. This breadth of experience shows in the book, which is more practical than theoretical, and is accessible enough to share with board members who don't have a background in nonprofit management.

A decade ago, Mission Impact would probably have been characterized as a book about strategic planning. Which it is. But it's also the latest in a series of books attempting to deal with the shortcomings of strategic planning as it has traditionally been practiced by nonprofits. Others—also worthwhile reading—include Nonprofit Strategic Positioning by Thomas McLaughlin (Wiley, 2006) and The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution by David La Piana (Fieldstone Alliance, 2008).

All of these authors point out that strategic planning in the nonprofit sector has generally been long on planning and short on strategy. Good at getting the board and staff on the same page around basics like mission, vision, and values. Woefully bad at defining strategy, establishing measurable goals, and creating realistic implementation plans.

As a result, strategic plans have a reputation for moldering in file drawers rather than serving as practical blueprints for executives and boards.

Mission Impact is well worth reading for many reasons. Mr. Sheehan does such a good job of introducing and explaining other authors' relevant concepts that Mission Impact packs the punch of several books. It suggests several practical innovations that are worthy of consideration, such as conducting the traditional SWOT analysis (an assessment of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) much later in the process than most groups do. And several case studies make the material more practical and accessible.

Of course, reading a single book won't turn executives and boards into strategic-planning superheroes overnight. But it can help jump-start needed boardroom conversations about strategy, effective planning, and how boards can be involved in a more meaningful and manageable way.

If you've read Mission Impact, let me know what you thought. And if you've been through strategic planning, let me know how these comments square with your own experience.