Planning and Program Governance

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In this section:

The Planning Process
Analyzing the Environment
Basic Levels of Planning
Program Governance
Who Should do the Planning?
Planning Cycle
Implementation and Evaluation
Planning Guidelines

The Planning Process

Planning is the process of identifying, considering and setting objectives, determining the best means of achieving those objectives and allocating responsibility and resources to meet them. It entails what is to be done, what resources are required and how the results are to be measured and evaluated. Planning determines the direction the agency is to go and provides the basis for management control to ensure that it follows that direction.

Though planning is one of the most important duties of the board it is also the one most often neglected. Planning should not be viewed as something that the board or staff can leave for a rainy day. Without a well-developed planning process, the long-term work of the agency cannot be assured. Planning is a major part of the public trust obligation discussed in the Legal Accountability section.

With effective planning, board members and staff can make the following statements.

"We know where we are headed as an agency and have a clear vision of how we are going to get there."
"We have concise goals and objectives that are clearly understood by everyone in our agency."
"We have consistent action plans and strategies for achieving our goals and objectives."
"Other organizations in the community understand where and how our agency fits into the overall provision of service in the community."

Without effective planning, problems and controversy surrounding the actions of the agency may occur. The board will lack the data it needs to demonstrate the agency’s accomplishments and to evaluate the agency’s impact.

Planning also provides a means to identify possible difficulties and deal with them before they become actual crises. It allows the board of directors and staff the ability to review several alternatives before choosing a course of action. Planning can provide a frame of reference within which decisions can be made to allocate financial and human resources.

How To Plan

Every organization develops its own approach to the planning process. There is no one best way or right way to proceed but there are some "rules of thumb" that will help avoid problems and confusion when planning.

  • Make time for planning. Managers and board members often complain that they have no time for planning. Setting aside specific meetings for planning or holding planning workshops are examples of how you can commit time.
  • Review plans regularly. Planning must be an ongoing process which allows the agency to respond to internal and external changes.
  • Gather information from all possible relevant sources when planning: the community, staff, volunteers, clients and funders. Ensure that anyone affected by a plan has input into it.
  • Specify what is to happen when and who is to do it. Allowing people latitude with respect to how they accomplish tasks will contribute to their sense of responsibility and satisfaction.

Analyzing the Environment

Before actual planning starts it is valuable for the board, aided by staff, to assess the agency in relation to the environment and government directions. Non-profit agencies are subject to a variety of forces, trends and issues that exist in the environment external to the agency. It is not always clear which of these forces affect the agency’s survival or progress; however, it does not mean that these forces should be dismissed as either too complex or irrelevant. Quite the opposite. Any planning system should incorporate some analysis of the environment. Such an analysis may reveal new trends or issues which may act either as a threat or an opportunity for the agency. The following represents some of the questions that should be considered when analyzing the environment for planning purposes.

1. Public Values and Opinions

  • Are there any dominant shifts in general public opinions or values that could impact on the agency?
  • What is the level of trust for service agencies?
  • How do people feel about the use of their tax dollars for such services?
  • Are people asking for easier access to such services?
  • Are volunteer resources increasing or decreasing?

2. Financial Supporters

  • What is the pattern of financial support that might be expected from key sources?
  • Do government policies indicate restraint or expansion?
  • Are donation dollars rising or falling off?
  • Are supporting businesses expecting higher profile and a part in the decision-making if they sponsor service agencies?
  • Have tax incentives for donations been enhanced?

3. Services

  • Are new services being offered to meet the increasing need and growth in population?
  • Are services experiencing greater costs for operations?
  • Are operating costs being subsidized or charged back? Is there a change in this pattern?

4. Legal Policy

  • Are there increasing requirements for standards or levels of service?
  • What is the pattern of legal cases involving liability suits brought against agencies, their managers and boards?
  • Does the environment suggest a consideration of new or further liability insurance?

5. Media

  • Are there new opportunities emerging for promoting services through diversified media? Make use of speakers using public service spots which provide articles that enhance the agency’s reputation.
  • Is the media emphasis on our service or related activities changing?

6. Competition

  • Are there other related agencies that appear to be developing programs in the same area?
  • Are there other new activities that have recently emerged that would be seen as competition for the time and attention of people who might be attracted to the agency?

In assessing these various trends and issues that make an impact on the agency, one can be presented with an overwhelming array of data. It is important to try to focus in some structured way on those forces which can be seen to have the greatest impact on the goals and activities of the agency over the short-term or over a slightly longer term.

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Basic Levels of Planning

Whether dealing with an agency’s mission or with one of its specific projects, planning is the process of developing answers to three basic questions.

Where are we now?

Where do we want to go?

How are we going to get there?

The first question forces the agency to look at its resources, strengths and weaknesses. This assessment phase is critical to the planning process. It provides information about what is good, what is not so good, and helps management, board members assess what direction, and goals are feasible and logical for the agency.

The second question must be answered in both specific and broad terms. The broadest statement of agency direction is captured in the mission statement which indicates the agency’s purpose.

Next are the setting of goals and objectives both of a long-term and of a short-term nature. The third question must be answered by specifying activities necessary to accomplish the short-term objectives which, in turn, contribute to the overall mission of the agency.

In simple terms, there are three basic levels of planning in an organization:

  • mission or purpose planning
  • long-term strategic planning (two to five years)
  • short-term operational planning (one year)

Planning should begin with the ideal, move on to the realistic strategy of how to work towards the mission and continue through to the detailed planning for this year.

Mission Planning

The board requires a planning process to articulate the mission or vision of the agency. What is its dream? What is it trying to accomplish? What are the values and beliefs that will guide the decision-making of the agency? Reaching board and staff consensus on the dream is fundamental. Mission planning is a process which should be undertaken once every three to five years. If there is a rapid rate of turnover of both board members and staff in an agency, mission planning and reviews may be necessary more often.

The result of mission planning should be a clear mission statement that is communicated to all new board members and staff, volunteers, members and granting bodies. It is the cornerstone on which all other planning is based and should identify what difference the agency will make by its existence. A mission statement should not list specific activities, set deadlines or state the quantity of service that will be provided.

If possible, a mission statement should be one sentence which is easily understood so that board members are able to use it as a basis to evaluate whether plans, policies and programs are in keeping with the purpose of the agency. It should also be clear, concise and lively enough that board members, members of the agency and staff can use it to communicate to the public what the agency does. A mission statement should describe the uniqueness of the agency by answering three questions:

  • what is the business of the agency? (the needs the agency is attempting to meet)
  • whom does the agency serve? (direct and indirect clients)
  • how does the agency fulfill its function? (the uniqueness, the distinctiveness of the agency)

Many agencies already have mission statements. At planning time, the mission statement should be reviewed to ensure it is still understood and relevant. As the environment changes, needs change and thus the scope or nature of the mission changes.

Long-Term Strategic Planning

The mission statement is the basis for developing a long-range plan or strategic plan for the agency. The strategic plan describes the major purposes and direction of an agency. It allows the agency to set objectives and establish priorities in relation to available resources.

There are many questions that need to be discussed and resolved during the long-range planning process. The first is, where are we now? Answering this question requires a fairly rigorous assessment of the strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and constraints of the agency. Then, given this assessment and considering our mission, where do we want to go within the next five years and what is it going to take in terms of resources to get there?

The long-term plan should articulate specific goals and objectives of the agency in major areas (programs, finance, personnel, operations and public relations). These organizational goals and objectives determine the "rate of progress" by which the agency will accomplish its mission or purpose.

Without a long-range plan agencies can find that they have no means of assessing whether they are truly moving forward. How much closer are they to realizing the dream? A five-year plan, jointly committed to by the board and staff, acts as a motivational tool as well as an excellent management tool to monitor and evaluate progress.

Long-range planning or strategic planning is reflected in statements of what the agency wishes to accomplish in each major area, or area of emphasis, in the realization of its mission. These statements are referred to as long-term objectives.

Short-Term Operational Planning

The short-term plan is a one-year operational plan that covers each major area of the agency. It is a "slice" of the long-term plan approved by the board which provides a detailed picture of what specific activities are going to be undertaken and the resources needed to accomplish these tasks.

It is often developed by staff, or by staff working with board committees, and is presented to the board for approval. Short-term plans should be developed for all areas of emphasis, such as programming, operating, fund-raising, board development and public relations.

Short-term objectives further define "where we want to go" by breaking large targets up into less overwhelming smaller targets. They create possibilities out of impossibilities. Short-term objectives help the agency see what needs to be done in the near future, in order to accomplish something at a later date. If the short-term objectives are well thought-out, and met on schedule, the long-term objectives will be accomplished.

The short-term plan answers the question "given our objectives and goals over the next five years, what are we going to do specifically in each major area, this year?" This plan provides the basis for board monitoring of staff and committee performance. The short-term plan turns the long-range plan into an action plan and answers the third planning question, "How are we going to get there?". This operational plan identifies activities, tasks, responsibilities, timelines and resources to accomplish the short-term objectives and ensures the long-term objectives are accomplished.

Activities should be recorded to help monitor and control progress towards an objective. Activities define who is going to do what and when. Having a detailed action plan helps eliminate confusion and contributes to getting things done.

Be sure to keep the short-term operational plan realistic, and be careful not to overload one individual or group within the agency. When calculating required resources, include both financial and human costs. It is beneficial, when preparing the operational plan, to get input from those affected by its implementation.

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Program Governance

In the planning process, the board sets goals that can be supported by specific activities. The board determines which services and programs are appropriate for the agency to meet its goals, and if resources are available to implement them.

Program planning must be part of the planning process, especially the short-term operational plan. Specific short-term and long-term program planning statements should be incorporated into the overall agency plan in order to set the direction for the program and services. The board has a responsibility to ensure that program plans are developed by staff and that the board supports them.

The board also has a responsibility to provide its management staff with guidance and direction on the available resources to be used in programs and services. Staff attempting to plan specific programs without this type of guidance will become extremely frustrated.

It should be noted that granting organizations are increasingly expecting agencies to provide them with short- and long-term program plans to increase accountability for the use of public funds.

The board must monitor and evaluate programs and services to assess the extent to which these are contributing to the goals and objectives of the agency.

The following is a list of important facts to remember regarding the board’s program governance function.

  • The board has a responsibility to ask pertinent questions about significant programming changes. If boards are accountable for public funds, they must ask questions.
  • Board members can often be a "resource" when program plans are being developed. They may be able to assist with funding arrangements or provide the community’s perspective on the need for or acceptance of a program.
  • Board members evaluate whether programs and services are meeting the needs of membership, community and users. Evaluations should look beyond attendance and also consider the quality of services being delivered.
  • The staff are responsible for carrying out program and service delivery and should be given the ability to do this.

Who Should do the Planning?

A participative approach to planning is often most beneficial because it increases the sense of "ownership". People who participate in the development of a plan are more likely to work towards its successful implementation and communication. Communicating the overall goals and objectives of the plan is part of the public relations function in promoting the agency in the community. When board, committee members, staff or volunteers do not take ownership in a plan, the chances of its success are minimal.

Mission planning and long-term planning should be a joint board/staff undertaking. In most organizations, the executive director has a vision of what the organization should achieve from a service standpoint. It is absolutely fundamental that the board be provided with an opportunity to understand and embrace that vision. Mission planning provides that opportunity. It also provides an opportunity for board members and senior management staff to assess what steps are necessary to accomplish that dream from an administrative and governance perspective.

In most administrative and management areas the board will assign responsibility and hold staff accountable for implementing approved plans. In governance areas, implementation may be a responsibility retained by the board or assigned to a committee. For example, a plan to develop a policy for board members’ evaluation within the next 12 months may be assigned to the nominating committee, with the chairperson held accountable to the board for doing this.

Planning is not difficult, but it does involve many steps or tasks. Dividing the planning process into smaller pieces will make it more manageable, less intimidating and more likely to achieve its set goals and objectives.

Planning Cycle

Planning is an ongoing process. That process needs to fit into a planning schedule that considers the program and budget plans. Objectives may be set in a plan, but the budget may reveal the agency lacks the resources to achieve it. Program and budget planning steps should be repeated each year, at regular intervals that reflect the reporting requirements established by the board. The board meeting schedule should then revolve around the decisions which it must make as part of this planning process.

Let us take a simplified example* of a small agency which does not have a mission statement or a long-range plan. It has one full-time staff member, the director and some part-time staff. In the past, the board has reviewed budget and program plans for the forthcoming year in December.

*A Handbook for Cultural Trustees by Marion A. Pacquet

Step 1
In August, the board and executive director have a weekend retreat to develop their mission statement. They select a quiet setting where they can work without interruption. The director shares his or her vision with the board. The discussion is abstract and ideal. The mission statement developed through this process is then established by the board at the next legally constituted meeting in September.

Step 2
In September and October, instead of making the planning process a major production exercise for its one senior staff member, this board requests its board committees to develop components of a five year plan. The personnel committee, for example, would be asked to develop some goals and objectives for hiring, and the finance committee would do likewise for fund-raising. When goals and objectives have been developed in draft, the chairpersons and the director will meet to compare notes. Once they have reached a consensus, the senior staff person might be asked to prepare one consolidated document. The proposed longrange plan would, according to this schedule, be available for discussion and approval by the board at its November meeting and would include goals and objectives for programs, personnel, finance and public relations.

Step 3
In December, the director and part-time staff prepare a one-year plan. This plan is a slice of the five year plan. It includes the budget, program plans, goals and objectives of the agency. This is presented to the board, resources are carefully considered and the plan is established for the next fiscal year.

In the fall of the following year, the director, working in consultation with board committees, develops goals and objectives for each major area and step 3 is repeated. Every three to five years the entire process is repeated. Incoming board members and staff are provided with copies of the mission statement and the long-range plan.

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Implementation and Evaluation

Implementation means turning the planning document into action. If the planning process has built commitment into the plan, there will be several individuals and groups ready to take on assignments. The leaders of the agency must take the plan and assign the various activities and tasks. Individuals assigned the tasks must be able to answer questions such as, "what am I being asked to do," "what is the expected outcome," "when is it due," "how much time will it take" and "what resources and support do I have to complete this task."

A second key step that will help implementation is assigning individuals or a committee to coordinate each area of emphasis identified in the plan. This includes regular communication with the workers who are undertaking the activities and tasks. This group monitors the plan and keeps it moving toward the mission and goals. A regular evaluation of the plan allows the agency to consider how things have been going, whether the right things have been done in the right manner, and whether there are other things that need to be done. Thus, evaluation accomplishes two tasks:

  • it measures progress against the plan by comparing "what is" to "what ought to be" (the mission and goals)
  • it identifies any needed changes to the plan based on the current environment

The agency needs to regularly evaluate operations and compare them to the plan. If the plan is to be a useful document, it must change as circumstances change. The agency should establish a monitoring process to regularly review and update the plan. A useful technique is to use the plan as an outline for meeting agendas. The individuals assigned to monitor each area of emphasis in the plan can report and discuss the progress at each meeting. This ensures that the plan is kept in the forefront of the agency’s ongoing operations.

Planning Guidelines

It is worthwhile reviewing the planning guidelines that have been discussed.

  • It takes time to plan. Time needs to be set aside specifically to work on planning, or it will never happen.
  • As much as possible, involve those who will be affected by the plan and who will have to implement it.
  • Always keep the agency’s purpose in mind. All the goals you set and plans you make should relate directly to that purpose.
  • Take time to consider various solutions, even if the solution seems obvious. Evaluate a number of alternatives before deciding on a plan of action.
  • Plans should not be cast in concrete. They must be flexible so that if things do not happen as expected, the plan can be changed. Plans should be evaluated and revised as needed.
  • Plans for the total agency are generally long-range and project three to five years in the future. Individual programs and departments more often use short-term planning for the coming year only.
  • Plans by staff are done under the direction of the policy making board and may need board approval before being carried out.
  • Plans must be done very carefully, to acknowledge the realistic limitations of resources--both people and funds.
  • Plan according to the needs of the agency and the resources available to it at this point in time.

Though agencies are often faced with resistance to planning from the board and staff, experience has shown that planning is a good investment of time which results in improved decision-making and communication throughout the agency.


Plan Checklist (PDF)

Planning Process Self-Evaluation Worksheet (PDF)

Planning and Program Management Review Worksheet (PDF)

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