In our wildest dreams, strategic plans are these beautifully constructed living documents that bring clarity to our daily work, drive necessary organizational culture shifts, and effectively communicate our work to internal and external stakeholders.
In reality, the strategic priorities, key activities, and measurable outputs and outcomes of such plans appease our boards and institutional funders, and yet, we all too often still find ourselves not quite sure what to do once contexts shift and unexpected wins (and challenges) arise. Eventually, that living document goes to live on a shelf far away from our initial aspirations for impact.
Scholars, thought leaders, organizers, and activists have offered a variety of alternative approaches to this seemingly ubiquitous challenge. But what does it take to actually move a foundation to adopt a new way of planning? Over approximately nine months in 2020, a team from FSG helped the Cleveland Foundation answer that question. Our work together illustrates that instead of trying to capture the elusive “strategic unlock” in the details of a strategic plan, an inclusive planning process might actually hold the key to transformative change.
The Cleveland Foundation is the oldest and one of the largest community foundations in the country. Founded in 1914, the Foundation has helped shape the landscape of northeast Ohio and catalyzed the broader field of community philanthropy. Throughout its history, the Foundation has been on the leading edge of philanthropic innovation, demonstrating the ability of anchor institutions to drive economic development and cultivating a vibrant arts and culture hub unmatched by peer cities.
Yet even with this storied history as a philanthropic leader, and despite tremendous gains in discrete fields such as public education, the Cleveland community continued to struggle defining outcome measures, with systemic racism lurking as a root cause of disparity that the Foundation had not yet named.
In early 2020, the Foundation set out to refresh its strategic plan. Proud of its tremendous history of leadership and excited for what lay ahead, the Foundation expected a relatively traditional planning process. But the start of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the compounding challenges of 2020 upended the normal and led to a commitment to leverage this process to confront, wrestle with, and ultimately reset expectations across the Foundation.
Guided by the belief that shared learning leads to effective group decision-making, the strategic planning process was transformed into a learning journey for the entire organization. It started with listening. The Foundation conducted more than 50 individual and group interviews ranging from local civic leaders to donors to grassroots activists who had never received a grant from the Foundation. While stakeholder interviews are a standard component of traditional strategic planning, expanding the definition of “stakeholder” from the city’s traditional power players to this broader swath of community brokers, neighborhood elders and activists changed the tone, tenor, and content of those interview findings. Reams of grant, donor, and community impact data were analyzed and innovative efforts from peer cities and philanthropies across the country were uplifted. The full Foundation’s board participated in the Racial Equity Institute’s Phase I Training, where over the course of two days, they explored the historical, structural, and cultural analysis of racism and its impacts nationally—an analysis many of them had never heard or engaged with. What began to emerge was the opportunity to not only support important individual projects and programs but also galvanize the community toward broader, systemic change.
To seize this opportunity, the board and staff together began to reckon with the local history of economic and demographic shifts, segregation, and community disinvestment that have plagued greater Cleveland for years. They grappled with the tension between building the community’s endowment for the future versus increasing the Foundation’s operating costs to meet today’s urgent needs. Leveraging FSG’s research, they explored how to expand their tools for impact from traditional grantmaking to asserting a greater role in advocacy, convening, and influence. They talked through how to continue to support the direct programs and services the community so desperately needs, while also targeting the systemic barriers that make those programs necessary. Program teams explored how they might shift power and build trust through their grantmaking practices, and non-program teams identified opportunities to align their work to broader impact objectives. From how the Foundation’s corpus is invested to how each guest is greeted at the front door, everyone recognized they had a role to play. Leadership named the risk of losing potential donors and partners—specifically those uninterested or unwilling to confront the root cause of systemic disparities—but also the opportunity to convene and collaborate in a way that would unlock new partnerships for change.
All-staff and strategic planning committee meetings—which now included not only the board but also junior Foundation staff and external community advisors—became sense-making sessions, with vulnerable and transparent conversations that prioritized relationship-building and relational trust across the enterprise rather than an asymmetrical exchange of information. Winding and challenging, the new process began to trigger the collective mindset shift necessary for sustained change. That mindset shift is perhaps best captured in how the Foundation announced its new strategic direction. From a stage in MidTown Cleveland, where the Foundation is already helping to spur equitable community development, the Foundation’s board chair acknowledged that race and racism impact all of us and made a commitment to 1) paying attention to race in all aspects of the Foundation’s work, 2) looking at the big picture and exploring root causes, 3) collaborating and co-creating with people across the community, 4) learning from the past, while building on strengths, and continuing to respond to the community needs as they emerged.
As expected, the process surfaced strategic pillars and goals that activate and align teams, highlight key investment priorities, and clarify indicators of progress. But perhaps more importantly, it aligned both board and staff on a new vision, grounded in collaboration, co-creation, and continuous learning in partnership with the community. Said differently, the Foundation set out to create a roadmap, detailing specific actions, initiatives, and outcomes for the next three to five years. What it established was a new compass powered by trust, redefining how the Foundation would show up in support of the community to enable transformative change moving forward.
The story of the Cleveland Foundation is not a how-to guide or universal solution; rather, it’s an invitation to reflect on what you are prioritizing as you gear up for your next strategic plan. When done right, strategic planning is the ideal time to create the visioning and mindset shift that empowers real change.