What is the best approach to the end of one year and the beginning of the next? Is it to continue carrying with us the weight of 2017? Or is it to enter 2018 unburdened and hopeful?

Sometimes when working on a strategic planning project with a client, they have difficulty keeping their eyes on the future. While all that has led up to strategic planning is formative, depending on the situation, it can serve to propel the organization forward, or it can impede its movement.

Real Challenges Constrain Vision

In one engagement years ago, the strategic planning retreat took place within a few weeks of the board’s difficult decision to cutback services in order to realistically address a budget shortfall. The reality of the situation made it extremely difficult for the board members to brainstorm freely when creating a three-year strategic vision. It was as if they were stuck in quicksand.

Fully aware of and sensitive to the situation, I was nonetheless frustrated because I knew from experience that a strategic plan would help the organization move to the next level. While that next level might not have seemed extraordinary to an outside observer, it could be, nonetheless, transformative for this organization at this particular time. So, overcome by my own feelings, I blurted out that the board should plan as if money were no object!

Breaking Free

Some of the board members looked at me as if I were hallucinating. Others clearly took umbrage, assuming that I wasn’t tuned in to their reality. And yet, we persevered. We continued to brainstorm and plan for a future that seemed shaky at best. As the afternoon wore on, the conversation loosened up. The board broke up into small work groups and tackled the key strategic issues. They smiled and relaxed. They reported their small group discussions to the full board and we reflected and refined the work. By the end of the day, there was a framework for a strategic plan that was both realistic and visionary.

As I drove home and replayed the day’s events, a few things went through my mind. Was it inappropriate for me to have acted on my frustration? After all, as their consultant and facilitator my job was to ensure that this board of directors had a meaningful experience planning for their organization’s future. That being true, I realized that my flash of exasperation served to change the tone of the retreat. Inadvertently, I had given the board permission to set aside reality to envision a more robust future.

This anecdote embodies the conundrum – do we carry everything forward or do we begin anew? Is there a third option – both?

Of course there is a third option. It is both because everything an organization and its leaders experience is formative. At any point on a time line there is what came before and what comes next. Internally, former staff and volunteer leaders may have left legacies and new staff and new board members arrive with fresh viewpoints. Inevitably, the external landscape changes. Responding to the changes or being proactive to get ahead of them may require building on experience and existing knowledge or seeking new direction and trying something unfamiliar. It may even require some of each. In all cases, nonprofit leaders must ensure that staying in their comfort zone doesn’t mean being stuck.

Looking Ahead

This has been a rough year because <fill in the blank as many times and in as many ways as resonate for you/your organization>. Ignoring this would be shortsighted and unwise. Nevertheless, as we look to the New Year, let’s recommit to working for equity, civility, truth, and so much more. I pledge to do my part to inspire vision as I work with my clients to increase their ability to bring their missions to life every day and make their greatest impact.