Engagement Planning: A New Approach to the Strategic Plan

We live in a world where decentralized groups of ordinary citizens can force a dictator to resign, and where a U.S. President can be elected by an average campaign donation of under $200.  Ordinary people have the power and tools to make change without the guidance of our most brilliant strategic plans and even without organizational leadership or structure.  It is becoming not only possible but necessary to approach change person by person, leader by leader, and community by community.  In this world, our planning process must put the engagement – of people, leaders, and communities- at the center of our work.

This shift requires that we plan with constituent engagement at the center of the work and that the entire planning process reflects this value. This is Engagement Planning.

Engagement Planning looks at every aspect of an organization’s work– its programs, campaigns, fundraising, operations, communications, marketing and positioning — from the perspective:  “How can we use this function to build more leaders in our movement?”

The best strategic planning processes typically leave out or minimize the role of our “constituents” (aka: grassroots base, donors, consumers, members) in the actual process.  At the end of the project, these constituents might get a short note from the Board President about the outcome of the planning process, and yet, they are likely the ones who are impacted most by the new plan.  Constituents’ lack of centrality to the planning process often translates into campaigns and programs that fall short of realizing their full potential over the long term.

At the heart of Engagement Planning is a constituent engagement model that optimizes existing infrastructure and facilitates openness across the organization. The model itself ultimately becomes vibrantly alive as it is continuously fed by the cross-section of leaders and constituents who participated in the process.

Strategic Planning Engagement Planning
FOCUS Organizational growth Building an engaged network and a movement
CENTRAL THEME How to use human & financial capital How to build a network of leaders
POWER & DECISION MAKING Centralized and stagnant Diffuse and dynamic
STRUCTURE Maximizes predictability Maximizes innovation and flexibility
CORE ACTIVITY Facilitated & structured brainstorming Listening

Engagement Planning uses a dynamic listening and feedback process that deeply engages constituents across the organization.  It creates ongoing structure for listening and feedback loops and provides “on the job” listening training to core leadership and staff.   Key leaders (at the board, staff and grassroots levels) learn about best practices and emerging ideas around engagement organizing.  They learn how to identify burgeoning movements on the ground.  This process ensures that the best innovations and approaches bubble up from the frontlines to the forefront of the work.

In most organizations, the best answers to the key questions already exist in leaders and groups on the ground.  Grassroots leaders are often innovating and creating their own unique and brilliant ways of being thought-leaders and ambassadors.

For example, in California, we talked to leaders who formed a small local ad-hoc committee (connected to a large national environmental group) that created a community phone-banking project around a presidential election.  This volunteer phone bank made tens of thousands of calls to voters in swing states, yet the national organization took little interest in their successes.  Imagine if the national organization had replicated what worked, and scaled this ad-hoc phone banking effort.  Imagine 1,000 phone banks tied to the national organization that were together making millions of calls.  Now imagine that these phone banks were just the first step on a pathway to deeper leadership engagement in the organization.

One of the central tenets of The Engage Network’s work is to push power to the edges.  We often like to say, “you can have control or you can have growth, pick one.”

When power is collected and held in a central location (like a headquarters or a board of directors), it is destined to stifle growth and dampen possibility.   Yet, when power is thoughtfully and strategically pushed to the edges of a network, people who are on the ground and closest to the action can bring their insights and innovations to the center of your vision.

Engagement Planning creates space for a wide range of voices to be heard (from the innovators to the complainers to the new members and loyalists), and ideas to be shared.  For organizations that truly believe in their leaders, it is the best first step in growing a more powerful, more vibrant and more impactful network.  As a staffer we recently worked with said, “We used to do planning for our leaders, now we do it with them.”


One Comment

  1. 06/12/2011 at 9:36 pm

    This is great! The Australian Youth Climate Coalition is just about to go into a ‘strategic planning’ process but now I realise that we should really be doing ‘engagement planning’ – this is exactly what we need! Do you have tools or processes we can use to go through this process? Or examples of how other groups have done it?
    Cheers, Ellen (from AYCC).

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