When my wife was elected in 2011 to the board of directors of the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL), I could not have imagined that I would get to witness her participation in an outstanding example of effective nonprofit strategic planning.

I have long urged the nonprofits I counsel to commit to developing a strategic plan and planning process, often citing the quote, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” But for a great many organizations, the reality is that the strategic plan, if one is developed at all, winds up collecting dust.

A few rules that I consider to be golden rules of effective planning are 1) leadership from the top is crucial, 2) the relative roles and responsibilities of key stakeholders – particularly the board and staff – must be clearly defined, 3) the “doers” – i.e. those who will be charged with plan implementation – must be engaged and must “buy-in” to the process, and 4) there must be well defined benchmarks so that progress against goals can be tracked, and goals can be regularly updated as appropriate.

I would have guessed that the ACBL would find it difficult to carry out an effective planning process. The board is geographically dispersed, comprising representatives from 25 districts around the country, who typically see each other just three times a year at board meetings, and who are often inclined to think first about what is good for their district and only secondarily about what is good for the ACBL; board members are bridge enthusiasts who are not necessarily knowledgeable about effective nonprofit governance (they were not uniformly enthusiastic about the news they would be undertaking another planning project); and as a bridge player myself, I can say with confidence that we can be a testy, argumentative bunch.

Yet a number of factors combined to make the ACBL process a good one:

 Effective Board Leadership. The woman elected to be president of the board for 2012 – the ACBL president serves only a one-year term – is a believer in the importance of planning, and had prior experience in planning with other nonprofits. She committed her year as president to the development of a strategic plan that would not end up sitting on the shelf.
 Effective Staff Leadership. In late 2011, the ACBL hired a new CEO who welcomed the opportunity to work with the board on a process that would help focus his efforts. In turn, he actively engaged his staff in the planning process. Prior to the November board meeting, he had the staff prepare presentations for the board and put them through test runs with other staffers simulating the role of the board. Not only did this process substantially enhance the staff’s enthusiasm for the plan, and their capacity to articulate their respective roles in the implementation process, it also culminated in direct interaction with the board, and the opportunity to receive first-hand feedback. And board members valued the opportunity to interact directly with staff.
 Effective Board/Staff Cooperation. The board president and CEO formed a strategic planning task force that included a) three board members, including the president, and b) three staff members, the CEO plus one more from headquarters and one from the field; input from the field was critical as this group of employees had been left out too often in the past. In addition, a planning consultant was hired to help facilitate the process; having an objective listener was critical to the success of the process. As a result of the work of this task force, the full board saw substantive progress from one meeting to the next.
 Definition of Key Strategic Priorities. The planning process led to the definition of five key strategic priorities that were approved as the basis upon which to establish action plans and accountabilities.
 Financial Support For The Action Plans. Management identified nearly a half million dollars in current expenses that were reallocated toward the support of the strategic initiatives.
 Measureable Goals. Benchmarks were established and agreed upon. These will provide the basis on which to track progress in 2013 and beyond.
 Continuity. The man elected to be board president for 2013 has publicly committed himself to the plan, and the CEO remains committed.

Effective leadership from the top, and the definition of a process that ensures the plan will be regularly revisited and revised as appropriate based on progress against goals, to my mind these are key hallmarks of the kind of planning process that “works.”

Personally, I am looking forward to my wife’s reports during 2013 on the progress of ACBL, and on the role of the strategic plan in that progress. Based on all that has transpired to this point, I am optimistic I will hear that the organization is doing very well.

Barkley Calkins, Director
Nonprofit Sector Resource Institute
Seton Hall University


Author: Robert Calkins

In banking (JP Morgan) for 25 years. Long time interest in the nonprofit world. Excited to be with the Nonprofit Sector Resource Institute at Seton Hall University. Active in my church. Love playing the guitar and singing. Love playing bridge and working out each morning (well, most mornings).

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