Unlocking the benefits community-centred strategic planning

Strategic plans are many things to many people. 

I have led strategy development across the health and social sectors for almost two decades. So, I also know that even when you find pockets of alignment on what a strategic plan is, disagreement may again surface when it comes to perspectives on how best to develop such a plan.   

Who to involve in strategic plan development

I offer this article not as any sort of definitive guide on what a strategic plan is, or how to develop one. Instead, I write it for those sitting in a pocket of alignment with me around the idea that within the many hows and whys of nonprofit strategic planning, the opportunity to centre community is key.

If you, like me, believe that an organization’s community members — its clients, staff, volunteers, partners, etc. — have valuable insights to offer during a strategic planning journey, well, then this article is for you. 

For those of you who believe a strategic plan should be developed by an organization’s leadership team and them alone, well, if you choose to keep reading I hope to give you pause to consider a different perspective. 

Three things to avoid if your nonprofit wants a community-centred strategic plan

As a nonprofit consultant who specializes in community-centred strategic planning, I work with organizations of all sizes to engage their boards, staff, clients, partners, and other community members in the development of multi-year strategies that reflect a shared vision for the future.

My experience is that this approach:

  • Centres the wisdom of the people living with the problem your health and social sector organization exists to solve
  • Builds connection and buy-in among both your board members, and those who will be on the frontlines of strategy implementation.
  • Ensures justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion are not just words that appear in your final plan. They are principles I work with my clients to build into their strategy journey from the start.

Plus, centreing your community often means taking the journey beyond the boardroom, which can create more space for creativity and play. As one small example, I recently proposed doing key informant interviews that take place during short hikes to a nonprofit focused on nature connection. 

That’s not to say attempts to be community-centred never go wrong. There are obvious missteps like being unclear up front about how input will be used, or failing to report back to community members on their influence. 

There are also some less obvious missteps I’ve observed in my years of leading community-centred strategy development. Here are three things that I think are particularly important to avoid if your nonprofit wants a strategic plan that centres community. 

A red traffic sign that says wrong way.
Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

#1: Using democratization of design language but not living into it

I learned this lesson when I guided a year-long strategic planning journey at CAMH (a leading mental health hospital in Toronto). When we started, my project team and I communicated a desire to co-develop the hospital’s next strategic plan with community members. 

We meant it. 

However, as time passed, we realized it simply was not a true reflection of the journey we were on. 

I remember one youth engagement session in particular where we walked in with hopes of their excitement for a vision statement that was drafting drawing on input from community members. Ninety minutes later we walked out with the realization that not only did we need to return to the drawing board, we had not connected deeply enough with their feedback in our first engagement session with them.

It was these types of experiences (asking for feedback, and listening to it, but not having true shared power) that prompted us to stop using democratization of design terms like co-development that were not truly being lived out. 

We shifted to saying we set out with an aspiration to co-develop the plan. We regularly communicated the significant input and influence staff, patients, family members, youth, volunteers, community partners, and donors had on the plan throughout its development. In the final document, we recapped that influence. This was (at the time) pretty cutting edge for a large healthcare institution with extraordinarily complex power dynamics. And, it was not true co-development.

#2: Saying “nothing about us without us,” but forgetting this includes influence over when and how participation takes place

This one is especially tricky for small nonprofits and charities with limited resources. Of course, you want to offer multiple options (methods, times of day) for participation that appeal to the diverse needs of your community. However, you are often short on budget and staff time. 

So, you might send a survey to your email list and hope you get a good response rate, and / or, you might build an engagement session onto an existing gathering and hope it resonates. And this might work. In fact, maybe this reflects past feedback you’ve gathered from folks around how they like to be invited to participate. (If this is your reality, nice work!) However, it might also mean you only hear from those for whom your small number of options for participation are a good fit. 

Take the time to ask people how they want to participate. This may mean having more than one session with a group (the first to talk about how and when participation will take place, the second to act on those ideas). And / or, it may mean doing your best to offer at least two options for participation during strategic plan engagement, and using that engagement as an opportunity to get input on how to make participation more accessible in the future. The results can then be reflected in strategic plan implementation. 

#3: Assuming that the people on your board and project team can speak on behalf of communities with whom they identify.

This is one of those “more than one thing can be true” scenarios. 

Is it important that your board reflects your community? Absolutely. Does the fact that you are in the midst of a multi-year effort to have your board of directors better reflect your community lead to a community-centred strategic plan? Nope. 

Is it important that your strategic plan project team, and your strategy consultant, reflect your community? Absolutely. Does hiring me, a racialized woman with Indigenous, Black, and white settler roots as your consultant, or having other project team members who are racialized lead to a community-centred strategic plan? Also nope.


First, no one person or people can speak for an entire group. Especially when the group has a broad label like “racialized.” 

As an example, my experiences as a racialized woman who is born in Canada, has English as my first language, and has obtained two university degrees are miles away from those of my late tia (aunt) who immigrated to Canada from Ecuador as an adult, never became fully bilingual, and took public transportation to far-flung factories where she worked assembly line jobs until free trade moved those jobs out of Canada. 

As your consultant, I’m there to help you engage your community not to be their voice. 

Second, unless you obtain express consent from such folks when they join the board or project team to share reflections on their lived experiences of oppression, it’s unfair to expect them to do so. They should be welcome to do so if they want to; but, free to decide not to. 

What to do if your nonprofit wants a community-centred strategic plan

If you are part of a nonprofit interested in developing a community-centred strategic plan, I’d love to hear from you.

You can book a free consultation with me anytime, whether you are a nonprofit with robust and ongoing community engagement or co-creation practices we can leverage, or one that wants to start by taking some small steps towards being community-centred. 

I will help you to be thoughtful about not using trendy democratization of design terms unless they are true reflections of your process, to engage your community members in ways that consider their needs, and to go beyond your board or project team for input. 

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