What Strategic Planning Looks Like Now

How can choruses engage in the important work of strategic planning when the sands are shifting so quickly beneath our feet? We spoke with experienced consultants about how strategic planning is changing in the current environment, and how choruses can set themselves up for an effective planning process. 

Uncertainty can make embarking on a strategic planning process daunting, and to say that choruses have endured extreme uncertainty over the last year and a half is an understatement. However, uncertainty didn’t begin with the pandemic, and in many ways COVID-19 has served as an accelerant for strategic planning trends that were already underway.  

Before the pandemic, “a shift was starting to happen away from the more traditional form of planning, where the goal was to try to plot a roadmap,” says Allison Trimarco, the founder of Creative Capacity LLC. “The environment is so changeable that the roadmaps were becoming obsolete fairly quickly. The model was not working anymore.” 

“Strategic plans used to be five to ten years long,” says Nadine Wethington, the founder and principal of Forte Leadership LLC. “Now that has really flown to the wind. I don’t see organizations interested in planning more than three years out.” As a trained soprano and member (and board member) of The Choral Arts Society of Washington, Wethington understands the need for choruses to be agile and flexible. There is too much in flux to plan for longer periods, she says. 


Less About a Roadmap, More About a Vision 

So what does a successful “agile and flexible” planning process look like? Trimarco has observed a trend toward adaptive planning and a greater focus on vision and impact. Adaptive planning is less about roadmaps and detailed timelines, and more about a vision for the organization’s impact and setting out what are traditionally referred to as objectives, but what Trimarco prefers to call “accomplishments.” She encourages organizations to ask themselves, “What are we trying to accomplish?” and then use those desired accomplishments as a litmus test for opportunities and activities. “It provides the level of flexibility that organizations need right now,” she says.  

Alison McNeil used to facilitate strategic plans covering three to five year periods. Now, as the founder of and chief creative officer for McNeil Creative Enterprises, McNeil and her team focus on strategic thinking and strategic alignment in their work with arts organizations. McNeil says they frame their work as strategic thinking because they want to ensure that an organization’s priorities directly align with their actions. She no longer does strategic planning, per se, because the world can change so quickly, making fixed terms and deadlines less helpful than flexibility and alignment with organizational priorities.  

“What we’ve learned in the last three to four years is that the world can change at any moment, and if our priorities and our alignment are clear, then what we do should be checked against those statements,” she says. “It has become less meaningful for the insight to be time bound, but every decision, if your priorities and alignment are clear, can go through that as a filter.” 

In addition to the recommendation that strategic plans cover a shorter scope of time, several consultants noted that planning should be an ongoing process rather than a “one-and-done” event. “It is more important to be doing strategic thinking all the time rather than strategic planning,” says consultant Susan Howlett. “One of the trends I’m seeing is that organizations are being encouraged to do strategic thinking all the time, and not just when it’s time to do a plan.” 

Resilience and readiness are important, says Mollie Quinlan-Hayes, a freelance arts consultant specializing in strategic planning and evaluation, program design and implementation, and readiness. She finds that people are more open to conversations about resilience and readiness than they were prior to the pandemic. “Flexibility and elasticity need to be built into plans. It’s still good advice to have measurable outcomes, both quantitative and qualitative, but how you will get there might need to be revisited more often.” 

Howlett focuses her consulting practice on offering simple solutions to complex problems. She recommends that organizations develop only three strategic goals: one each around the topics of programming, organizational infrastructure, and financial sustainability. She notes that it is important to weave fundraising into other goals; it should be part of the programmatic and infrastructure goals. 


Incorporating Access, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion into Strategic Planning 

The same interwoven approach goes for ADEI (access, diversity, equity, and inclusion). Sherburne Laughlin is the director of the arts management program at American University and has also served as a consultant, helping arts organizations with issues of governance, organizational development, and strategic planning. She believes that ADEI work should be incorporated holistically. “It’s a question at every step of the process - where is it in our mission, in our vision, in our values, and then you have to have the implementation. How are we going to operationalize our equity values? If you don’t build accountability into the plan, it’s not going to happen.” 

She says the evolution of strategic planning demonstrates that equity has advanced as a value in our field. In the past, not every organization addressed equity, but now it is a core value in the nonprofit arts sector. 

“We can’t actually set ADEI goals that are separate from everything we do,” says Howlett. Rather, equity needs to be integrated into each and every goal. 

“Diversity is not just demographics, but perspectives,” says Quinlan-Hayes. She encourages choruses to seek to distribute power more widely throughout the organization and stresses that in planning, it is vital to include diverse perspectives. 

McNeil also emphasizes the importance of including diverse perspectives. For this reason, at least three representatives from her firm participate in each client project, and they ask that at least three representatives of the client organization participate as well. 

“We now know clearly that the more stakeholders involved in the planning process, the more likely you are to succeed,” says Wethington. She notes that including as many stakeholders in the planning process as possible is a growing and positive trend. “The better you define your stakeholders, and the more stakeholders you include in the process, in one way or another, the better.” 

Howlett encourages choruses to talk to people in their communities who aren’t being served by their organizations. “You can learn a lot,” she says. 

Choruses can also use the planning process to improve internal inclusivity, by making certain everyone is involved and has an opportunity to be heard. If you feel like you are talking all the time, take a step back and listen to other voices. “Planning is a great place to break habits that are blocking inclusivity and equity within your group,” says Trimarco. 

Trimarco suggests that it is helpful to do some ADEI work before you start your strategic planning so that it is integrated into the plan. “My goal has been for organizations not to have an equity plan and a strategic plan, but to figure out how what we learn about equity in our organizations and what we might have to do can become part of our vision,” she says. The ADEI planning process should be connected to your strategic planning so that every goal in your plan reflects what you want in terms of equity. 

Wethington has shifted her thinking and terminology from ADEI to belonging. “When we’re talking about diversity, we’re talking about what’s different about us,” she says. “When we’re talking about inclusion, we are assuming that somebody is already there and needs to be included with us. I like the term ‘belonging,’ and creating a place for everyone to belong. That means that we all have to change the filters and the lenses through which we see the work that we do.” 

“‘Why do we have a chorus? What is it meant to do for the community?’ is the essential question right now,” says Trimarco. 


Setting Your Chorus Up for Strategic Planning Success 

Trimarco says she has never been so busy as during the last eighteen months. Early in the pandemic, she did a lot of scenario planning and crisis planning. Now, many organizations, particularly those that did have programming during the pandemic, have found that they learned a great deal and need to integrate these unexpected lessons. Her counsel to organizations undertaking a new strategic plan is to “release yourself from the obligation to understand what conditions will be. We live in an unsettled world, and the organizations that thrive are the ones that understand how to stay on track even as things change.” 

Staying on track can include recognizing the difference between strategy and tactics. “My personal point of view is that strategic planning should be no different pre- or post-Covid,” says Todd Estabrook, a past chair of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society and of Chorus America, where he continues to serve as a board member. As a member of the faculty for Chorus America’s Online Chorus Management Institute, he teaches strategic planning and governance. He says the pandemic affects a chorus’s operations, but it shouldn’t affect its strategic plan, though it may cause strategic goals identified before the pandemic to be drawn out over a longer period of time. “It impacts your day-to-day operations, but shouldn’t impact your strategy,” he says. “If your strategic goals are to make meaningful change in your community, using the vocal arts as a medium, then COVID, no COVID, it doesn’t make any difference.” Your implementation has to change because of the pandemic, Estabrook says, but that is tactical, not strategic.  

Laughlin cautions that organizations sometimes think that strategic planning is the answer to all their problems, but it’s not that simple. “What I usually find is that there is some tension somewhere, which someone is trying to fix with strategic planning. That’s what you have to figure out before you can actually do strategic planning,” she says. If an organization can identify the source of tension and be upfront about it with the consultant, they can put themselves in a stronger position to resolve that tension and successfully create a strategic plan to move the organization forward. 

To get the most out of working with a consultant, Quinlan-Hayes recommends that organizations put together data in advance in order to save time and cost. “When I talk to organizations, the kinds of things I want to hear include, what is driving you to do the planning now? Are there things surfacing including COVID, or beyond COVID? Are there shifts in your environment?” She also encourages organizations to think in advance about relationships they might like to build or strengthen, so those partners might be engaged in the planning process.  

Wethington also suggests that choruses can get the most out of a facilitated planning process by collecting data first. This could include a membership survey, information about your audience, and financials; evaluating your mission statement first can also be helpful. Wethington says that organizational assessment is the initial step, and you use that assessment to identify what your strategic priorities should be.  

Trimarco advises organizations to select a consultant early. Most consultants who work with small and mid-size organizations are booked three to six months in advance. 

Choruses can also make the most of their planning process by thinking about how they will implement the plan once it is complete. Howlett says that when organizations finish creating a strategic plan, they should have a viable plan for accountability. “The major element of that is that board meetings, from then on out, get shaped around the strategic goals.” This focuses board meetings on stated and agreed upon priorities rather than spending board time on committee and staff reports. 

It can be easier to successfully implement a plan when the board feels ownership of it. Howlett likes to give board members specific assignments before a planning retreat. “The assignments make board members the resident experts on that topic,” she says. “I really think it’s important to have every single person in the leadership be given an assignment, so they all have skin in the game and they all feel like the plan is theirs. People really only own the goal when they helped create it.” 

She also suggests that when organizations come up with their goals, they divide the work into what belongs to the board and what belongs to the staff. This can help the board focus on their own portion of the work. It can also be a helpful technique for organizations that have no paid administrative staff, by helping boards to separate strategy and tactics, board work and volunteer work, and to structure board meetings around strategic priorities. 

No matter how changeable our world may be, organizations are engaging in strategic planning - especially now as we move toward reopening. Quinlan-Hayes sees organizations that are doing strategic planning now as being very hopeful. She says the pandemic has “reminded us how important the arts are to help us through change, and to help us in community.” 

Estabrook observed that ten to fifteen years ago, many choruses started their planning processes from a place of underestimating themselves and lacking self-confidence. Now he feels that there is “more recognition within the choral world that choruses are important and meaningful, and what they individually do and collectively do has more impact than you thought before. Once you realize that, you can put together a strategy that is bigger than you thought.” 

This may be the perfect time for your chorus to undertake a strategic planning process, with hope for the future and optimism that the choral arts have enormous power to heal people and communities. 

“I encourage choruses to know they have superpowers they don’t know they have,” says Estabrook. “They have superpowers and they need to share them.” 

Caitlin Patton is a Standards for Excellent Licensed Consultant and the Executive Director of the National Music Festival. She lives on a small goat farm in Maryland and is a violinist, avid choral singer, and former board chair of the Chester River Chorale.