Whether you are an advocate or a skeptic of strategic planning, COVID-19 has changed everything.
Since late spring, the leadership at many higher education institutions have been amending their strategic plans, placing greater emphasis on the emergency needs of students and faculty. Pivoting to a virtual environment has tested institutions’ technology infrastructure in countless ways. The financial aftermath of COVID-19 is already here as it has forced institutions that rely on enrollment-driven revenues and philanthropic support to adjust their longer-term priorities.
Even the competitive dynamics of philanthropy are changing. Community nonprofit organizations are engaged in “survival” philanthropy, collaborating with well-known community foundations and previously viewed competitors to raise funds for similar or complementary initiatives. Community-minded donors of some higher-education institutions are taking an interest in these ventures, seeking to put their support behind nontraditional gift propositions that break through the clutter of typical gift requests. Other sophisticated donor prospects are taking a hard look at institutional competencies that rise to the level of potential COVID-19 solutions.
In my 30 years of experience lending strategic counsel to higher-education clients, I have observed one undeniable fact: A well-crafted strategic plan is sufficiently resilient to survive the unforeseen—even the impact of an unprecedented pandemic.
Developing a strategic road map
To be sure, there are vastly contrasting perspectives on the value of investing in comprehensive, evidence-based strategic planning.
Strategic plan advocates view an “all-in” leadership commitment as a rare opportunity to focus and galvanize institutional thinking around a rigorous assessment of the organization’s strengths and shortcomings that are tested against an external environment of emerging challenges and opportunities. This consensus-building process aims to produce a compelling vision, ambitious goal setting and carefully aligned strategic initiatives. The process is only complete after undertaking the painstaking exercise of making difficult choices when prioritizing these initiatives against financial constraints.
The end product is a well-crafted strategic plan that affords organizational leadership a consensus “road map” to guide the institution. It also helps strengthen the institutional brand, differentiate the institution from its peers and translate innovative thinking into “big ideas” to form the centerpiece for the next campaign.
Strategic plan skeptics often consider strategic planning a public relations exercise that aims to fill website pages with hyperbolic content, to pronounce the institution a national leader “in continuing innovation,” or to “check the box” to prepare for an upcoming accreditation process. The exercise, they suggest, distracts institutional leadership from focusing on day-to-day demands and the latest crisis. Unforeseen developments require a shift in resources away from that “big idea” initiative. Before long, that time-consuming strategy document is sitting on a shelf, no longer a consensus road map to guide the institution.
Community college case study
A current GG+A engagement with Montgomery College—one of the country’s largest community colleges—recently embraced the position taken by strategic planning advocates. Its approach to strategic planning is textbook.
In support of this summer’s launch of Montgomery College’s 2025 strategic plan, its philanthropic foundation decided in late-2019 to undertake its first-ever strategic plan to align donor support with the college’s top-tier strategic priorities. By early-April, the foundation’s strategic planning committee had completed initial development of several of the strategic plan’s key components that included:
- A baseline “situation analysis” that reflects emerging national and regional post-secondary trends, leadership consensus on the college’s and foundation’s strengths and shortcomings, and an assessment of the foundation’s opportunities and formidable challenges to become a more effective strategic partner with the college;
- The development of key components of a plan’s basic framework, including a draft vision statement, priority-setting goals, and a core strategy;
- Strategic initiatives that have been conceptualized and vetted to ensure they support the plan’s vision and core strategy.
By mid-April, COVID-19-influenced emergencies dominated daily decision-making. Students needed more than emergency grants to offset tuition payments. Many lacked updated laptop computers, tablets and other technology devices—even access to Wi-Fi—as learning shifted from the classroom to a remote environment. Underserved student populations grew increasingly vulnerable to daily struggles with food insecurity, housing issues, and mental health challenges. Some faculty sought immediate professional development support to modify their course offerings to meet distance learning objectives. As a result, both the college and foundation hit the “pause” button on their respective strategic planning work.
However, Montgomery College leadership resisted the temptation to put its recently completed strategic plan on the shelf. It reconvened its planning group and determined that strategic responses to COVID-19 could be addressed within the basic framework of the original plan. It amended specific initiatives and developed new ones to address pandemic-related emergencies. Funding resources were reprioritized. In short, the original strategic plan remained relevant and adaptable.
The foundation reactivated its own planning process following the college’s plan reassessment. Its leadership sought and secured consultation with the college’s three primary leadership councils to become acquainted with modifications to the institution’s strategic priorities and supporting initiatives and the rationale behind these decisions. The foundation is currently reexamining the heft and relevancy of its current strategic plan draft document to determine whether:
- The original vision is sufficiently aspirational to support and align with the college’s new strategic priorities.
- The original goals are sufficiently broad and comprehensive to incorporate all of the college’s new or amended strategic initiatives, including an ambitious endeavor to provide food security, mental health and other social services as part of a holistic student support structure.
- The original core strategy–mobilizing and targeting foundation member influence among business and community leaders–remains a potential brand differentiator in this new environment when students are seeking greater access to paid internships and other applied learning opportunities to offset COVID-19-related impact on future employment opportunities.
- The originally developed strategic initiatives continue to align with the new and amended college priorities.
- Newly developed initiatives relating to emergency student needs will become two-year, short-term priorities while many of the pre-COVID-19 initiatives will become longer term, three- to five-year priorities.
- The foundation’s funding strategy will be modified, placing greater emphasis on “current use” funding to finance some of the short-term emergency priorities while longer-term priorities will be supported by endowment funds.
The important takeaway from this example is the resiliency of a well-crafted strategic plan, even in the throes of a historic pandemic. Montgomery College and Montgomery College Foundation leadership have trusted the rigorously tested, consensus-building work that went into crafting their original strategic plans.
When COVID-19 prompted an immediate course correction, college and foundation leadership did not veer off course to address new realities. They chose amending over abandoning their plan. Realigning over scuttling strategic priorities. Maintaining a strategic focus over random decision-making in a time of crisis.
That reflects the reality that a well-crafted strategic plan can serve as a guidepost that helps an institution navigate even the toughest of terrains.
Are you contemplating engaging your organization in a strategic planning exercise–whether internal and external pre-planning assessment, visioning and priority setting, “big idea” conceptual development, or facilitating an entire consensus-building process–with a goal of strengthening brand identity, securing competitive differentiation or informing an upcoming campaign? If so, please email Ed Caron at firstname.lastname@example.org, who specializes in strategic planning.