A Blueprint for Facilitating Non-profit Strategy Offsites
Case Study: Animal Friends Alliance
Goals: Amazing Organizational Results AND HAPPIER DOGS & CATS TOO
Both of The Welcome Elephant co-founders have rescue dogs, and helping animals find forever homes where they’re well-cared-for is super meaningful to us. So this summer we reached out to the Animal Friends Alliance (where Christine has volunteered on occasion to walk dogs) to see if they might need some strategic planning facilitation that we could provide as an in-kind gift to this wonderful non-profit.
Our timing was perfect, as Animal Friends Alliance had recently exceeded their last five-year goals (even in the turbulent covid-times!) and were ready to plan for another impactful five.
The Welcome Elephant prepared and facilitated their strategic planning offsite in early Sept 2023. We are grateful to the Animal Friends Alliance for trusting us to help plan their time and facilitate their strategy analysis and co-creation. They are an incredible organization with a vision to have all companion animals experience a healthy home where they are wanted, cared for, and loved. They help thousands of companion animals–and their humans–every year.
This blog post is specifically a rough blueprint for how you might go about designing your next strategy offsite for your non-profit: We provide some details of how we prepared, designed, and facilitated this strategy offsite in hopes that it helps your non-profit create meaningful time together in your next board meeting or strategy session.
How we design effective and energizing strategic planning sessions
The desired outcome of a strategic planning session includes more than a set of stories and measures to guide organizational direction. It also includes engaging the skills and energy of the extended leadership team and board in analyzing, co-creating, and aligning on that strategy. It involves creating momentum such that everyone comes out of that session excited to test and execute on the strategy they helped create.
In order to engage everyone, build that aligned energy and generate the stories and measures–all in a short day or two–we follow a repeatable process of preparation and design. We start by learning the context, connecting with humans individually and collectively. Then we design an agenda and facilitation plan that helps people contribute, explore divergent ideas and converge on an aligned strategy. We include varied activities in small and large groups that leverage different types of thinking, interaction styles, and conflict methods. Finally, we help everyone prepare so they can show up ready.
Early in the session design, we need to determine the right mix of the phases of strategy development:
Create strategy - Decide how we intend to succeed in the current environment, and craft general direction. Provide context and “why” behind our choices.
Articulate strategy - Clearly describe goals in stories and success measures.
Pressure-test strategy - Also called catchball, get feedback to refine the strategy by engaging next-level leaders in analysis and refinement.
Prioritize strategy elements - Sometimes it helps to plot a rough deployment of strategies into a roadmap of sequenced workstreams and actions. This allows leaders to more easily see optimization opportunities along with risks, dependencies, and resource issues.
It often helps to have discussions that range across this set, as getting into some of the details around deployment can help hone reality for the goals, and make the strategy come alive for people who aren’t used to seeing the forest for the trees.
For Animal Friends Alliance, we were working with a well-known set of strengths and challenges, and some well-informed and creative ideas about how to address these in the near future. We planned the session around having a draft set of goals brought in by the leadership team. We planned to spend most of our time in goals articulation and catchball.
Often a group needs some combination of strategy creation, articulation, and analysis. How much time will the group analyze and refine existing draft goals vs co-create new goals from scratch? The answer depends on a number of factors, such as
previous work done by the organization on goals
clarity of vision from the executive director and leadership team
maturity of the board and leadership team members explicitly in creating strategic direction
available time (co-creation requires more)
In any session, we work to design the arc of the meeting to invite divergence–new ideas, differing perspectives, even disagreements–and then move to convergence–alignment, agreement, excitement. And we always reserve at least a few minutes at the end to agree–as an extended team –on specific next steps in how we will test and communicate our strategy, both stories and measures.
Preparing the people and designing the session
Almost always, strategic planning for a non-profit involves board members and leadership team members coming together–which in and of itself is a powerful practice. Board members and staff don’t often get much time together in most organizations, and they each bring valuable experiences and perspectives. Providing time for all to share–and combine–stories and expertise is powerful.
We leverage these diverse perspectives–and prepare people to plan together–by inviting everyone to share insights about how the organization succeeded or fell short of attaining previous goals. In the case of Animal Friends Alliance, we did this through both surveys and empathy interviews. This information helps us learn what experiences, ideas, emotions, and expectations people will bring into the meeting with them; if we know how people feel, we can design a better agenda and facilitation plan.
A rough outline of our preparation and pre-work looked like this:
We met with the wonderful Executive Director, Sarah Swanty, to capture and co-create our purpose for the time together, to plot both capturing the strategy story of organizational history along with current context, and current and future strengths and challenges. We discussed how we might collect and share context from staff, board, donors, and volunteers.
Sarah and her team wrote the strategy story, and we helped ask questions to provoke additional insights
Sarah and her team sent out lots of logistical emails: the initial heads-up, doodle polls for dates, calendar invitations, arranging the meeting space, sharing pre-work and more.
Sarah’s team sent out survey questions (reflecting on the past and looking forward) to all board members, staff, volunteers, and donors.
We (The Welcome Elephant facilitators) conducted confidential empathy interviews with ~15 strategy session participants–board members and staff.
The Welcome Elephant facilitators summarized survey responses and empathy interview themes to help shape the desired outcomes, outputs, activities for the day, and to design worksheets and pre-work.
Pre-work for all attendees:
Read the context story, how we got here (to bring to the front of their minds)
Read about current industry and local challenges
Take the retrospective survey
The strategy offsite session
In partnership with Sarah, we crafted this purpose for the strategy offsite time together, a purpose that included our desired outcomes in service to their mission and vision.
TO align on audacious 5-year goals and a high-level plan to get there
+ connecting as humans
+ understanding current and upcoming community and Alliance challenges
+ analyzing and aligning on audacious 5-year goals
+ understanding the big pieces of work needed to get us there
+ making a collective commitment to a current best-effort prioritization and work selection
+ maybe: ongoing demonstration and prioritization activities
+ generating clear steps in how we will communicate our results to the larger organization
We provide comprehensive companion animal resources, services, and education to the community to prevent homelessness and promote the human-animal bond...to further our vision that all companion animals experience a healthy home where they are wanted, cared for, and loved.
Our agenda for the day looked roughly like this:
Executive director welcome
Ice breaker to get people using their voices quickly. This time we used: “Current and past roles and skills”
Facilitator’s opening: Share purpose and agenda, logistics, expectations and tools for participation. Review empathy interview feedback and retrospective survey results.
Current context review, provided by the executive director and leadership team. Includes reviewing the context story, origin story and how we got here, recent goals and how we met them (or not), core problems we need to continue to address, new problems we’ve learned about and see coming–of course, with Q&A
Capture likely drafts of next goals and objectives, and the big pieces of work, the “rocks” we might need to get there.*
In small working groups, delve into the activities, actions we might take to help achieve those goals. Note that this activity in particular can help us refine our measures of success. What is the impact of each activity?
What are the tradeoffs between doing one rock or another? How might we prioritize? Create a rough timeline for potential implementation.
With clarity, agree on how, when, and what we will share with others. Explicitly write this out and agree to check in on each other afterwards.
Retrospect on the day: What did we like, what would we change?
Important facilitation note: Real-time adjustments build energy. Follow that energy!
The proposed agenda rarely matches the actual session exactly; we are happy to adjust timing, activity design and even whole agenda items in service to creating better outcomes and outputs and to building creative and collaborative energy in the room.
As we facilitate, we notice who’s leaning in and who’s still hanging back, and we work to bring all voices into the room. We listen for the tough topics, and help the group address them safely. We help them focus on the decisions that matter, and park the detours for future conversations. Once the energy ignites, we follow that!
The day with the Animal Friends Alliance included plenty of energy and plenty of adjustments! We found a topic that needed special attention from the entire group, and facilitated a deep dive to hear dissent and come to enthusiastic agreement. We sensed that people wanted to dig into crafting better value stories and defining the right success measures, so we introduced a new template and adjusted an activity to allow for more co-creation in small groups.
The full day was energized and productive. Together the Executive Director, board members and staff leaders captured drafts of the next 5-year objectives and goals: stories about what they want to accomplish and metrics that show what success would look like. They left with clear and specific next steps to finalize those drafts in the coming weeks and months.
In the retrospective on the day, we appreciated their feedback on our time together in the “We loved…” category:
“the empathy interviews getting us engaged ahead of time”
“the context story reminding us of how far we have come and the work we still need to do”
“the alternating small group work and large group discussion”
“the helpful worksheets”
“Seven hours went fast! We wanted to do even more together!”
Clarify and Achieve Your Own Audacious Strategy
We appreciate the Animal Friends Alliance for the amazing work they do. And we appreciate the opportunity to donate some of our time to that work–and help facilitate the creation of their next goals. If you’re interested in having us help you plan or facilitate a strategic offsite for your non-profit, please reach out to email@example.com.
You can learn more about the Animal Friends Alliance and/or donate here.
*Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand in a Jar: Imagine filling a jar with the things you spend time on for work and life. If you start with the sand–the little things–you’ll fill the jar without leaving any room for the big stuff. Instead, you need to first make space for the big things–the rocks. In business, the rocks are your big strategies, your most important work.