It has taken me a long time to truly appreciate the power of a strategic plan and the process that creates it. For years, I thought it was just another one of those no-pain-no-gain things in life—something that is not enjoyable and yet you must do it to be healthy – like exercise or limiting chocolate consumption (Just no!).
Today, I am an enthusiastic believer and the process of creating Chorus America’s new FY 2023-2025 Strategic Plan has confirmed my conversion. One of Chorus America’s guiding principles that informed this plan is transparency, so I’m happy to live into that by sharing the key steps of our planning process and some of the approaches we took that felt particularly meaningful to our plan development. I hope this will encourage more strategic planning enthusiasts!
Getting our Bearings
As Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Given this environment, in fall 2020 the Executive Committee asked that each Board committee take a deeper look at our plan’s goals against the current needs of the organization and the choral field using these questions:
- Do any goals need to be accelerated now given the impact of COVID and the renewed and expanding social justice movement?
- Is there anything that is clearly no longer relevant among our goals and objectives?
- Are there aspects of the current plan that should become primary goals for the next plan?
The full Board discussed the outcomes at its October 2020 meeting and some significant insights emerged:
- We agreed that the current plan did not fully reflect Chorus America’s priorities in centering access, diversity, equity, and inclusion (ADEI) in our organization and the field.
- We needed to strengthen our own organizational capacity in order to increase access to online resources and peer learning for our members.
- The rapidly changing social, economic, and technology environment made a five-year planning horizon impractical; a three-year plan with flexibility to respond to changing needs made more sense.
During the next year, as Chorus America responded to the waves of the pandemic and all the programmatic “pivoting” required, we continued to gather research and other input on the operating environment, the field’s needs, and potential solutions.
Putting the Planning Team Together
Chorus America is blessed with a 36-member Board that includes outrageously talented, smart, and dedicated leaders who have wide-ranging experience in strategic planning for nonprofits, universities, and corporations. In order to leverage the Board’s input effectively, we created a strategic planning task force to lead the in-depth plan development work that would be unwieldy with a larger group. The task force was responsible for the detailed deliberations, positioning, and editing that went into each major element of the plan: a revised mission and vision, guiding principles, a strategic framework, and strategic objectives. This group also facilitated the full Board’s involvement in the process.
Organizational direction is a key Board responsibility and so it was appropriate that our Board Chair at the time, Brian Newhouse, became the task force chair. Brian’s thoughtful approach to organization management, combined with his deep love of all things choral music related provided a steady and determined force.
From the beginning, the Board felt that staff involvement with the strategic planning process was critical to our success. Having more than one staff member on the task force helped make this goal a reality. I could not have had a better partner in facilitating the staff’s involvement than Chorus America’s director of programs and member services, Christie McKinney. Among the many talents she brings to her job is a passion for and deep experience in strategic planning. Ultimately, the strategic planning task force included seven Board members, plus me, Christie, and our planning consultant, Dr. Antonio Cuyler.
Outside Consulting: To Use or Not to Use?
When it comes to major organizational inflection points, such as strategic planning, it can be very helpful to involve outside expertise to provide fresh perspective and guidance. At the same time, there is a cost in terms of both money and time to fully leverage the contributions of a skilled consultant. When deciding how to structure our work with a consultant, Chorus America considered these factors, along with our intent to approach the entire planning process using an ADEI lens and the level of staff and Board expertise already available.
Chorus America chose to focus our consultant’s involvement on helping us center ADEI in our new strategic plan and throughout the planning process. We relied on the task force to shape the planning process and write and edit the plan, and on staff to create the accompanying work plan goals.
For our consultant, we engaged Dr. Antonio Cuyler, a professor of arts administration and a noted expert in organizational planning related to ADEI, who was instrumental in launching and leading our ADEI Learning Lab program. In this new role, he was a valuable thought partner, leading discussions with the full Board, participating in task force discussions, advising staff, and reviewing drafts.
Focus, Focus, Focus: Developing Strategy and Building the Plan
Chorus America’s planning timeline included these milestones:
January 2022: Strategic planning workshop for the Board and staff with Dr. Cuyler to give input on developing our new mission, vision, guiding principles, and priorities.
- This workshop affirmed that Chorus America is choosing, during the period covered by the FY 2023 – 2025 Strategic Plan, to focus its ADEI efforts primarily—but not exclusively—on those marginalized because of race and ethnicity. We chose this focus because racism is so pervasive in our society and a focused approach will allow us to make significant and measurable change. Furthermore, results of this work will benefit future efforts in equity and inclusion on a broader scale.
June 2022: Full board review of draft mission, vision, guiding principles and strategic priorities.
- The Board confirmed the focus on three strategic priorities. We also realized the need for robust positioning and intent statements to clarify the reasons for our direction and the specific strategic priorities—these became the introduction and strategic framework of the final plan.
October 2022: Review of full plan, including high level goals under each strategic objective as developed by staff.
- At this meeting, the Board wrestled with language to describe our ADEI focus, recognizing that the language being used in equity and inclusion work is constantly evolving. The Board reached consensus to use the phrase “marginalized because of race and ethnicity,” but agreed that this language can change as appropriate. The Board also bolstered our objectives around ensuring Chorus America's own fiscal and operational health.
November-December 2022: Stakeholder feedback
- A joyous part of the process for me and Christie was brainstorming a list of choral leaders who know Chorus America and care deeply about its future; with sincere gratitude, we realized the list was quickly growing way too long! We arrived at a diverse group of ten individuals who represented choruses of various types and sizes. Their feedback was affirming of our direction and helped us ensure clarity in the final plan. We are honored to include some of their quotes in the plan release.
January 2023: Board final review and vote to adopt the Strategic Plan
- After a few final “tweaks,” in January 2023 the Board adopted the FY 2023 – 2025 Strategic Plan. The staff is now deep into developing department-level work plans around each of the strategic objectives, which will help determine individual staff performance goals for the coming years.
Keeping the Planning Process Moving
Chorus America’s Board only meets as a full board three times per year, so it was especially important to make each meeting as productive as possible and to keep strategic planning work going in between meetings. The Task Force met via Zoom for in-depth discussions of the various plan elements and also worked asynchronously to comment on drafts and suggest edits via Google docs. The staff followed a similar process to provide feedback and add high level goals to help illustrate our proposed action steps.
A highlight of the task force’s work was the creation of a positioning statement to introduce the plan and a strategic framework that laid out the background and intent behind each of the three strategic objectives. These provided an important foundation for the Board’s input and decision-making and gave both the Board and staff an increased understanding of the task force’s thinking that helped us all stay on the same page. Both the introduction and strategic objectives are linked to in the full plan to help to tell the story of how we’ve arrived at this point and what we intend to accomplish from here.
The task force also reached out to every Board member personally in advance of full Board meeting to gather questions and input on the latest strategic plan draft. This helped to focus discussions so we could be more productive and make the best use of the Board’s time. Thanks to this work, the task force and lead staff were well-prepared to guide the Board’s discussion of the final drafts, moving quickly through the parts of the plan with which the group was already in agreement and spending time on the most important issues and questions that needed further conversation.
Consensus Decision-Making: Our Equity Commitment in Action
I have heard more than a few frustrated choral leaders complain about their strategic plan efforts getting bogged down toward the end due to wordsmithing or an inability to reach unanimous agreement on certain details in the overall plan. At the 2022 October Board meeting, task force member Alysia Lee led the Board to use a consensus decision-making process, rather than a more traditional “majority rules” approach, to move the strategic plan forward. Consensus decision-making is a way of balancing power, providing time and a mechanism for everyone to give input rather than just “going along” with the majority. In general, group members agree to support a decision even if it is not their first choice or they don’t fully agree with every aspect.
The goal for the October meeting was to get consensus on the wording of the major components and agreement on the general direction of important changes so that the task force could move the process to the next phase of seeking member stakeholder input. The consensus approach worked well for our collegial Board and helped us navigate even sensitive topics to arrive successfully at our final phase.
Our planning process has helped to renew and refresh Chorus America, and we are excited about what the future holds for us and our members. Strategic plans at their best are living documents, referred regularly to by the Board and staff to guide decision-making, and we are committed to this for our new plan as well. Over the coming months and years, we look forward to sharing our progress and lessons learned with all of you regularly and enthusiastically.
Read the FY 2023-2025 Strategic Plan
Chorus America's new strategic plan articulates a new vision, mission, and series of guiding principles for our organization, as well as three strategic objectives and accompanying goals that will shape our work during FY 2023-2025. Read the complete FY 2023-2025 Strategic Plan at chorusamerica.org/about/strategic-plan.
My Key Strategic Planning Takeaways
- You don’t need a crisis to assess your strategic plan’s alignment with the reality of your current work priorities.
- Make sure your top administrator and Board Chair have some strong team members to share the responsibility of strategic planning work.
- Don’t go it alone. Depending on your chorus’s capacity, involve a recommended consultant for the overall process or for a part of it if possible.
- Use a sub-committee or task force to do the heavy lifting of plan development, including in-depth debate about potential directions, writing, and board engagement. This group should include key staff and the consultant to the extent feasible.
- Acknowledge the danger of Board bog-down and work towards consensus, rather than seeking 100% agreement or “majority rules.”