Why You Need The Three-Way Partnership in Your Strategic Planning Process

Planning is challenging. Why not plan around the people of your organization?


As our world is still coping with the pandemic, strategic planning in the nonprofit sector is needed now more than ever. Is your organization searching for a way to continue to make an impact in the community it serves? In the past, maybe your organization has relied on your higher-up leadership, board members, and the “high-profile” donors to play big roles in your organization’s strategic planning process. Perhaps your organization has a strategic plan that’s twenty years old and outdated or even worse, your organization does not have a strategic plan at all. If your organization is considering writing or updating its plan, incorporating the “3-Way Partnership” would create a more holistic and inclusive approach to the development of your organization.


What is Strategic Planning?


The National Council of Nonprofits states the overall objectives of strategic planning. “A strategic planning process identifies strategies that will best enable a nonprofit to advance its mission. Ideally, as staff and board engage in the process, they become committed to measurable goals, approve priorities for implementation, and also commit to revisiting the organization’s strategies on an ongoing basis as the organization's internal and external environments change. Strategic planning gives your organization direction; it gives your stakeholders a clear path of the overall mission, vision, and actions of your organization.

Have you ever heard the saying, “a goal without a plan is just a wish?” We set goals to achieve a certain outcome. But without any type of set plan to achieve those goals, we usually never obtain them. Creating a strategic plan ensures we are setting ourselves and our organizations up for success.


There is no right or wrong way to devise a strategic plan. However, your organization’s plan should:


Set a clear direction of what the organization seeks to accomplish.


Incorporate SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-Bound) goals and objectives


Be an active guide for organizational alignment and not just something that sits on the shelf.


I also suggest that your organization shy away from using the traditional SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunity, and Threats) Analysis. This method tends to focus on the organization’s weaknesses and what the organization has not been able to achieve in the past. Instead, focus on the strengths of the organization and how those can be built upon for the organization to grow and thrive.


What is the 3-Way Partnership?


The community development method, SEED-SCALE, spearheaded by Future Generations University, incorporates a “3-way partnership” approach to strategic planning in community development. When a community is refocusing on what it wants to accomplish by first looking at its successes, the process also utilizes the social change mechanism, the “3-way partnership”. The first partnership, the bottom-up, is the energy of the people who will do most of the work and reap most of the benefits (think of your staff and volunteers, those your organization is helping). The second partnership, the top-down, is the authority-like environment of policies, leadership, or and financing affecting that group (think of your leadership, board of directors, high-profile donors). The last partnership, the outside-in, are the outsiders that have an interest in transforming the community (think consultants, researchers, people interested in your organization although they may not have direct involvement in it).


Because all three of these groups of people have influence and significance of the direction of your organization, it is vital they all have representation during your strategic planning process. The top-down should not have the majority influence nor should any group have more influence than another. However, because of the natural influence of the top-down, people in those positions will have to adjust and be more inclusive and ignite the influence of the bottom-up to participate in the strategic planning process; decentralize the power of the top and redirect it to those who are most impacted by decisions made in the organization.



How to Incorporate the 3-Way Partnership into Your Strategic Planning Process


As I mentioned previously, the top-down and the outside-in tend to have more influence than the bottom-up because of their natural influence in society. How can your organization change the status quo?


The strategic planning team will need to be made up of members from all three ways: top-down, bottom-up, and outside-in. It is important that your team should be equalized. Meaning, if your organization invites several members of the top-down, the same number of people need to be invited from the bottom-up and outside-in.


Those invited to the planning process from the top-down and outside-in will need to be positive enablers to the bottom-up. Meaning, these groups will not have an overpowering influence in the process. The Top-down should offer resources to the bottom-up while the outside-in should bring innovation to the process. There must be an equal balance of human energies being brought to the table from all sides. If the partnership becomes unbalanced, determine where the gaps are between the parties of the three-way partnership and make adjustments so that all parties have an equal opportunity to contribute to the plan.


Having bottom-up participation is vital to this process since these are your “boots on the ground” people; they will be most impacted by this planning effort. As the organization is deciding who should be invited to the planning effort, it is imperative to invite those who will do most of the work within the organization and reap most of the benefits the organization provides.


Historically, the bottom-up tends to be somewhat disconnected from the top-down and outside-in. It is important that the bottom-up feels empowered by the other two partnerships. To resolve disconnection between the partnerships, build relationships around the bottom-up. If you want to see social change occur inside your organization, capitalize on the bottom-up aspirations to where they feel inspired to participate and act in this planning effort.


Relationships are going to ultimately drive this process. The more synergized the three-way partnership is, the more growth will occur inside your organization as well as create a more balanced and pragmatic approach to the future growth of your organization.



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