To plan or not to plan? On a personal level, planning is an essential aspect of everyday life. What do I need to get done today? This week? This month? In many ways, planning helps us prepare for the challenges and tasks that may lie ahead. Think of the to-do lists that you make. Whether you physically write tasks down, use an app to organize your to-do’s, or arrange them in your mind, you are planning what needs to get done. In a sense, you are mapping out your future by addressing things that require your attention in the present. It stimulates your mind to embrace the future and envision yourself doing something to reach a desired result. Planning is a necessary activity in setting goals for yourself.

For human service organizations, whether small or large, planning is equally essential. As an organization that provides goods and services to individuals and families with varying levels of need, it is imperative that forecasting is done. This helps to create a roadmap for the direction in which the organization is headed. This is where long-term planning comes in.

Strategic planning, which is synonymous with long-term planning, is about establishing goals to sustain the future of human service organizations. Why is it called strategic planning? Strategy is the operative word from which strategic is derived. Historically, strategy was associated with the appointment of a general in the military to provide guidance on defeating enemies within battle. To serve as an advisor, many things had to be considered, including the size of the opposing army, weaponry, level of skill, landscape at battle locations, etc. in order to develop a winning strategy. Essentially, knowledge on competing factors had to be gathered to make informed decisions about next steps.

Strategic planning for nonprofit organizations follows a similar concept. Since the late 20th century, strategic planning has been used in the nonprofit sector to gather knowledge in order to determine strategy for advancing an organization’s mission. While creating a strategic plan involves levels of complexity and can be overwhelming to think about, it is critical to have a process in place for developing the plan.

Some people ask, “why should we establish a multi-year plan, when organizations are working under the pressures of an ever-changing economic, social and political climate?” While this may very well be true, in the words of Yogi Berra, “if you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” Human service organizations need something to which they can ascribe and push themselves to continuously evolve for the purpose of fulfilling their missions. So, if the organization is operating in a fast-paced environment, strategic planning supports the need to stay on a particular course rather than change paths so frequently that the direction in which the organization is headed is not clear to anyone within the organization.

Strategic planning is about creating a strategy where the end product is a long-term plan to be implemented over the next four years, at minimum. It isn’t just about identifying broad goals to be realized, but also key strategies for how the organization will meet those goals. The traditional strategic planning methodology involves getting feedback from different internal and external stakeholders, such as staff, clients, and community partners; obtaining information on the environment, such as with a community needs assessment or environmental scan; and conducting an analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) of the organization.  Many organizations tend to omit a SWOT analysis from their strategic planning process; however, it is beneficial because it provides an assessment of the internal (strengths and weaknesses) and external (opportunities and threats) landscape. Since the strategic planning process includes perspectives from various types of stakeholders, an organization can incorporate feedback in these categories to inform strategic decision-making.  Mind Tools, Inc. offers some great resources on conducting a SWOT analysis.

As is the case with for-profit organizations, typically the owners, board members, and leadership in nonprofit organizations lead the strategic planning process. Strategic planning is a critical activity within human service organizations because it provides a sense of direction in which the organization is headed.

If my organization develops an annual plan, should we still develop a strategic plan?

To put it simply, yes. Your organization should still create and implement a strategic plan, even if annual plans are developed; each plan has a different purpose.

The strategic plan identifies the framework for the organization on how to build and sustain programming over time. Should the organization pursue a new funding stream, provide new services aligned with its mission, adopt a trauma-informed model? The strategic planning process allows the organization to determine ways to advance its mission and consider the resources needed to do this. If the organization wants to build a new, state-of-the-art training facility, the strategic plan would include strategies to secure funding, such as a capital investment grant.

The annual plan can include goals that are directly or indirectly related to the strategic plan and are specific to the department or program. So, essentially, the strategic plan influences the annual plan; it is usually not the other way around. Annual planning is largely connected to the budgetary approval process for the next fiscal year. Therefore, it usually involves department and program directors since they project anticipated revenue and expenses, and ways the department is expected to grow. For the annual plan, organizations need to consider where they want programs to be within the next year and the strategic priorities shape those annual goals. Does the organization want to increase the number of clients served by 15% or offer support groups to survivors of human trafficking? The annual plan is operational and considers the daily tasks needed to run a program or department. If one of the organization’s strategic goals is to provide trauma-informed care to clients in all 3 counties where services are provided, then providing new support groups to trafficking survivors seems more closely aligned with the organization’s strategic plan than increasing the number of clients served in programs. This is an example of how an annual plan goal is supported by a goal outlined in the strategic plan.  The strategic plan should guide the organization’s yearly objectives.

Strategic Planning versus Annual Planning Table

In order to successfully implement both strategic and annual plans, the organization should identify opportunities to track progress over time. Establishing clear metrics to demonstrate whether goals have been accomplished allows the organization to periodically verify implementation of either type of plan. Determining how progress is measured is equally as important as developing the plan and should be outlined within procedures. Once a clear mechanism has been established, it should be outlined in the strategic and annual planning procedures.

Benefits of strategic planning

Benefits of annual planning

So, back to the original question, to plan or not to plan? If you are likely to plan out your day, week, or even the next month, hopefully, you see the value in planning the priorities for your organization over the next year and especially how the next several years could potentially look. In addition to creating an opportunity to explore new avenues for the organization, strategic and annual planning can foster a sense of hope in your staff about what may be on the horizon for your organization, despite all the external pressures that organizations continuously face.

A few resources

Example of a strategic and annual plan.
Example of a strategic and annual plan.

Community demographics are continuing to evolve nationwide, making the need for culturally competent organizations more prevalent than ever. In this article, we will discuss what this means for you as a provider of social services, and how your organization can progress in this realm by exploring the what, why and how of cultural competence.

The what

First, let’s define cultural competence. It can loosely be defined as the ability to respect, engage, and understand individuals who have different cultural or belief systems, where the elements of culture include, but are not limited to: age, ethnicity, gender identity, gender expression, geographic location, language, political status, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, tribal affiliation, and religion.

Tip: See more definitions of cultural competence from these experts in the field.

The why

The term competency in regards to culturally responsive practice has been debated. Can one ever truly be culturally competent? There might not be a consensus, but as a provider of social services promoting cultural competence will enable you to better meet the needs of the individuals, children, and families you serve. Understanding your community and those you serve facilitates stronger partnerships, resulting in higher quality programs and service delivery. Research shows that organizational culture impacts its effectiveness. An organization that commits to cultural competence is not only better equipped to successfully address community service gaps and needs, but also creates an internal culture that fosters responsive and respectful interactions.

Here are just a few of the many benefits, it:

The how

Seek stakeholder feedback

Connect with your community! The best way to do that is to offer formal and informal ways for clients and community members to provide feedback about the work that you do. That’s why COA highlights the importance of stakeholder involvement in performance and quality improvement systems in its standards. As an organization, you get a sense of what’s working and what’s missing the mark. You can then tailor your services and outreach efforts to ensure that they are culturally appropriate. Most importantly, when you incorporate client and community feedback it makes those you serve active in organizational decision-making processes and promotes engagement and empowerment.

Conduct a community needs assessment

Conducting a community needs assessment is an effective way to identify strengths and resources in your community. It also highlights current gaps and service needs. Collaborating with community partners can enhance this assessment. You can also review other external needs assessments conducted by organizations with a community-wide focus. KIDS COUNT data center, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, allows you to access local, state, and national level data and statistics on demographics and child and family well-being that can be incorporated into your assessment process.

Incorporate community demographics into your strategic planning process

Strategic initiatives should be responsive to changing community demographics and service needs. COA recommends that organization leadership review a demographic profile of their defined service population at least once every long-term planning cycle. However, it’s not enough to collect and review demographic data; it must inform an organization’s planning and operations. Promote cultural competence by establishing goals and objectives that are culturally appropriate for those you serve. Want to go a step further? Incorporate a cultural competency plan into your strategic planning process.

Foster a culturally responsive workforce

Promote cultural competence by having a diverse and inclusive workforce. A first step is ensuring that your human resources practices are culturally appropriate. Organizations should strategically recruit and employ personnel that reflect cultural characteristics of the service population. Is this a challenge for your organization? Create a plan that establishes goals for recruiting and employing individuals that represent your service population and community.

Another way you can commit to promoting cultural competence is by providing relevant education and training opportunities to personnel at all levels. Opportunities should not only focus on work with clients, but also address the internal workplace and interactions amongst other staff. Education and training should be tailored to the needs of your organization, but may include: language classes, interpreter training, mentoring programs, and diversity workshops. You can also conduct workforce assessments to inform ongoing personnel development opportunities to ensure that all staff is trained on culturally responsive policies, procedures, and practices. Once personnel have the necessary education and training, it’s time to integrate culturally responsive practices into everyday work with clients. As a provider, your goal should be to provide respectful, effective, and equitable care. This stems from adopting a service philosophy that is culturally responsive to those you serve, and culturally appropriate program-level policies and procedures.

Arguably one of the most important things that you can do as an organization is create safe and supportive environment where personnel can explore and gain an understanding of different cultures. You can do so by creating a cultural advisory committee to address workforce diversity issues or holding “cultural conversations” where staff can discuss diversity issues and learn from one another. Offering these types of forums reinforces a culture that is accepting and responsive to diversity.

Establish and maintain a diverse and inclusive board

One major responsibility of a nonprofit board is establishing and adopting organizational policy. Policies and procedures that support culturally responsive practice provide the framework for being a culturally competent organization. That is why having a board that reflects the demographics of the community it serves is so crucial. It’s no secret that board recruitment can be a challenge. If your organization is struggling to establish a board that is diverse and inclusive, establish a stakeholder advisory group that is representative of the community you serve and create a board recruitment plan that outlines strategies for getting everyone at the table. Need a little guidance? BoardSource is an excellent resource on board diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Are you feeling overwhelmed?

Don’t be. One of the most important things for organizations to keep in mind is that cultural competence is an evolving, active process; it’s not something that is attainable overnight. In fact, some researchers say there is a cultural competency continuum. The takeaway here is that every step you make towards becoming a culturally competent organization is a step in the right direction.

Want to learn more?

There are plenty of resources floating around the Internet that address cultural competence. Here are a few that you may find helpful:

National CLAS Standards

The National CLAS Standards are a set of guidelines that aim to reduce health care disparities and advance health equity. COA developed a crosswalk to demonstrate how COA standards align with the National CLAS Standards and support the provision of culturally and linguistically responsive services.

National Center for Cultural Competency (NCCC)

The National Center for Cultural Competency (NCCC) aims to promote health and mental health equity through the promotion of culturally and linguistically competent service delivery systems and offers a variety of resources and publications geared towards the promotion of cultural competence.

Standards and Indicators for Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice

Are you a social worker? The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) developed standards and indicators for cultural competence in social work practice.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides a host of information around cultural competency in the field of behavioral health. Check out this manual which focuses on helping providers and administrators understand the role of culture in the delivery of mental health and substance use services.

Okay, your turn!

What are some challenges your organization faced in this area and how have you attempted to overcome them? Can you share any tips, tools or resources that lead to your success? Please leave a comment below and help others learn from your experiences.