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As we approach the year’s end, many people are already looking forward to 2018, thinking about what personal goals they might hope to achieve: picking up a new hobby, saving for a big vacation, or perhaps simply getting outside more.

Just as you look inward when the new year approaches, it’s a great idea to also reflect on your organization, program, or project to see what went well over the past year, what offers room for improvement or growth, and how you might frame goals and objectives into the coming year. In that spirit, here are a few tips for carrying out a successful strategic planning session.

Why plan?

It’s not uncommon to feel a bit overloaded with work toward the end of the year, but it’s absolutely worth carving out a bit of time for strategic planning, since this offers a way to not only envision, but also map out what you hope to achieve in the coming year. Whether you adopt a formal or casual approach, the hope is the same: that your work will help set the course for a successful year of programming. During the process, you’ll review the previous year, consider future goals, and come up with benchmarks that will help you measure progress toward those objectives. The more seriously you take this exercise, and the more organized and specific you are while sketching it out, the more you’ll clear a path toward achieving your organization or program’s annual – and long-term – goals.

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Start with a review

Before you can begin to think about the future, you have to start with the past. The goal here is to review every aspect of your organization, from budget to marketing efforts to program participation, to assess what went well – and of course, what didn’t go as well as planned. A great place to begin is our Program Evaluation path, which can help guide you through the process of learning not only why it’s important to collect data about your efforts, but to then review that data in service of improving your programming and repeating your successes.

You will also want to revisit the previous year’s strategic plan if you created one. Otherwise, you can also review any other existing planning materials, whether that’s a full business plan or a specific project plan. (Don’t have a business plan? Here’s our helpful guide to get you started!) You might also want to glance over your mission, vision, and/or values statements if you have them (if not, here’s a quick primer on why you might find them useful).

During the process, keep these questions in mind:

  • Overall, what went well, and what could use improvement?
  • Did you meet the goals or objectives you set for the previous year? Why or why not?
  • Is the organization or program embodying its stated mission, vision, and values? Why or why not?
  • What specific areas should stay the same? Which ones should be tweaked?

Once you’ve considered the previous year, it’s time to start looking forward, looking at what you’d like to keep, change, or add to your organization and programming. One way to do this is to consider creating a “Theory of Change,” a tool that will help you define, measure, and communicate what success looks like for your organization or project. If interested, you can find resources to kick off your own Theory of Change process on the TYO platform.

Once you dig in, you might find that your vision statement changes as a result, since this is the tool you use to imagine an ideal future for your organization. In your review, did you identify any gaps in service? Or perhaps there are additional needs in your community or constituency that call for new objectives, projects, or areas of service? Think about how you’d like to improve, expand, and support existing activities, and how you can best continue embodying your mission statement in the coming year.

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Now…get planning!

Once you have a good sense of where you’d like to go in the coming year, it’s important to come up with a realistic way to lay out these objectives, and a reasonable way to measure them. Here are a few tips to help with this process:

  • Identify: List out all of the ideas that came up in your review process. Are these realistic and attainable for your program or organization? [Example: “Get more kids outdoors in 2018”]
  • Get specific: Drill down to create specific action items – this allows you to narrow your focus and laser in on what you really want to do in the coming year to achieve each of your targets. [Example: “Double our overnight trip offerings in 2018.”]
  • Think measurability: How will you know that you’ve achieved each objective? The more specific you can get here, the better – this will allow you to reflect throughout the year to see how close you are to achieving the desired outcomes. [Example: “Lead two overnight trips per quarter.”]
  • Consider timelines: Timeline targets further help to hone in – and achieve – your objectives for the coming year. These can be delineated by quarter, month, or even by a specific date, and should be listed on a calendar to help them remain concrete. [Example: “Lead first overnight trip in the Sespe Wilderness in February 2018.”]
  • Revisit: A strategic planning exercise is meant to benefit you year-round, so don’t let it disappear from memory once you’re finished on the front end. Whether it’s via a physical document, posted online, or discussed during a quarterly staff meeting, it’s important to keep your objectives front of mind as you assess your plan throughout the year.