A better writing process for strategic planning
Good writing and strategic planning can be like oil and water.
It’s not quite that the two don’t mix, but in any writing process where a committee is involved (i.e. many editors, reviewers, and approvers), reaching a clear and compelling end result isn’t always easy.
When defining big-picture goals and specific objectives that will only be used internally, there’s less pressure on the language used to express them. But for key internal and external organizational statements, like the vision, mission, and values, words matter.
Whether you’re in the middle of strategic planning, or are looking to develop a strategic plan and refine your nonprofit’s key statements in the next few years, here’s a quick guide to make writing by committee a more seamless and successful process.
1. Make sure there’s a writer in the room.
When defining roles for your strategic planning committee, make sure someone is wearing the writer hat. This person could be a board member with writing prowess, someone on your communications staff, or a consultant specialist.
The writer can be in the room from the beginning or brought in when conversations around the nonprofit’s vision, mission, values, or other key internal concepts that must be expressed externally are beginning to emerge in a clearer, more unified way. The writer’s responsibilities will include listening closely and eventually translating those ideas into external language. Depending on their capacity, they might also help by facilitating discussions, surfacing ideas, encouraging folks toward alignment.
2. Collect ideas first, then focus on language.
Rather than having everyone in the committee draft a new vision, mission, or values statement directly, facilitate a conversation to get everyone thinking about the big ideas each statement should capture first. Ask questions like, What would success look like for our nonprofit? How will we know when it’s time to close our doors? What do we value in our work? What do we do best—and why does it work?
The writer may contribute to the conversation, but should primarily be noting the core ideas and concepts put forth by the committee, and any useful terms or language used. Recording the big ideas in a memo can be beneficial in an initial pre-writing stage, both for the group to reach some alignment on the task at hand and for the writer to use as a guide going forward.
Once all members of the committee feel good about the ideas the statements should capture, the writer will take those concepts and focus on expressing them in clear, compelling language.
We find it helpful to use a nonprofit’s brand strategy (i.e. positioning and personality) to make decisions about tone and style, and to keep the writing consistent with the organization’s overall voice (if one exists).
The goal at this point in the writer’s process is to craft a solid first draft—one that will be taken back to the committee for feedback.
3. Get feedback on the draft from the committee.
Once the writer has created a solid draft, they can present it at the next strategic planning meeting and collect verbal feedback from the committee first.
The writer should have an opportunity to talk through what they heard during previous discussions, their thinking on the ideas and language elevated in the draft, and the goals of each statement (e.g. a vision statement should paint an idealistic and motivating picture of the world). This will help keep everyone on the same page.
Then, committee members provide their feedback. Ask members to focus their comments on the ideas expressed in the statements, not the words themselves just yet. Guiding questions could be, What’s working about these statements? What ideas are missing? Is there an idea here that doesn’t belong?
It’s completely natural for feedback on the ideas to drift into feedback on the words themselves. If a certain word or phrase just isn’t working, it’s helpful for the writer to hear that. But in order to keep feedback helpful, we recommend using brand strategy as a yardstick to ensure the conversation remains focused on the organization’s voice—not personal preferences.
Once the writer has received feedback to the first draft, it’s time to start round two.
4. Repeat until it gets ridiculous (then call in a third party).
The reality is, getting all members of any committee to enthusiastically agree on every word in a vision, mission, values, or other key strategic statement is a difficult task. Personal preferences and opinions are hard to look past, especially when the group is passionate about the organization’s future.
Members may fall in love with—or despise—a certain phrase, and reaching a productive balance may feel impossible without making some concessions.
If the committee agrees that neither the ideas nor words themselves are 80% right after two or three rounds, consider bringing an outside expert into the process. This person can be a member of the communications staff who hasn’t been involved in committee discussions, a professional writer, or a communications consultant.
The fresh perspective will be helpful to identify challenges, shine a light on opportunities, and focus the writing process going forward. And hopefully, you’ll be one step closer to finalizing your nonprofit’s key strategic statements.
Curious about how Big Duck approaches strategic planning and writing key statements like vision, mission, and values? Let’s chat.