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Are There Too Many Cooks in Your Nonprofit’s Strategic Planning Kitchen?

Kathryn Rouillard

It’s not about the number of cooks in your kitchen, but about each of their distinct roles. Learn how to identify the chef de cuisine, sous chef, line cooks, and patrons in your nonprofit’s strategic planning process.

The strategic planning process conjures up a number of sentiments among nonprofit professionals: stress about the time intensiveness of the process and balancing other priorities; fear about the potential implications of a change in direction for the organization; and excitement about the opportunity to deepen the organization’s impact and further its mission. No matter how strategic planning makes you feel, objectively, strategic planning is critical to nonprofit functioning. If done well, it is a data-driven and inclusive process through which an organization will improve its understanding of:

  • The need for its services;
  • Its unique abilities and positioning compared to others with similar offerings;
  • Ways in which it can potentially leverage its strengths by partnering with others; and
  • The potential obstacles and opportunities that stand to impact the organization (whether positively or negatively) in the future.

A strategic plan with clear metrics of success serves as a tool for assessment, discussion, and correction.

We are often approached by prospective nonprofit clients seeking to engage in an inclusive strategic planning process, but inclusive of whom, at what point in the process, and to what end? In a planning process it is important to clarify the decision-making role of each of the cooks in your kitchen, lest you “spoil the broth” (as the saying goes).

The chef de cuisine is the main chef in a restaurant. Who is the chef de cuisine in your strategic planning kitchen?

Chef de Cuisine

A kitchen has one person in charge of creating the menu. Is the restaurant going to be Italian, Asian-fusion, or Mexican? Will it be vegan? Farm-to-table? These are the sort of big-picture strategic questions that the chef de cuisine will consider.

Your strategic planning kitchen has one decision-making body whose responsibility it is to determine the high-level strategic direction of the organization. This is typically a Planning Committee made up of key staff and board leadership who will wrestle with critical issues of strategic importance to the organization. The board liaisons on the Planning Committee are responsible for keeping the rest of the board up to date as the planning process progresses, and presenting the chosen strategic direction to the full board for approval.

The sous chef is the second in command in a kitchen. Who is the sous chef in your strategic planning kitchen?Sous Chef

Once the chef de cuisine has created the menu, it is the role of the sous chef to ensure that all food served to customers is of the highest quality – in order to guarantee satisfaction. Due to the high-level nature of the chef de cuisine role, the role of the “second in command” is an invaluable one, attending to such questions as:

  • How will the food be plated?
  • How will the staff be managed?
  • How will new chefs be trained?

In a strategic planning process, given the size and differing levels of engagement of the members of the Planning Committee, we have found that it is critical to identify a board and staff “plan champion” (whether explicitly or implicitly) if the plan’s strategic goals are to successfully move to implementation. The ideal profile of a plan champion is someone who has good rapport with his/her board or staff peers; plan champions are able to exert influence over their peers, but not so much that they are perceived as inaccessible (the board chair and executive director may not be the best choice for this role). They have been actively engaged in the strategic planning process and are committed to and passionate about seeing the plan come to fruition. In fact, they should be so involved and dedicated, that they are able and willing to do whatever individual outreach is required to bring people along.

The line cooks work under the head chef or sous chef, and each line cook is typically assigned a particular place on the preparation line. Who are the line cooks in your strategic planning kitchen?

Line cookAs the chef de cuisine is considering whether the menu will be Italian, vegan, farm-to-table, etc., the kitchen staff is invited to provide input on the implications of each of these potential pathways. Will they know how to prepare the ingredients and assemble the dishes? While there might be a need for a vegan restaurant in the community and it may align with the restaurant’s mission to bring healthier food options to the area, its capacity to be a vegan restaurant is an important strategic question that is best directed to the line cooks.

In a strategic planning process, all staff have a role in ensuring the future success of the plan. Staff on the Planning Committee will help set the high-level strategy; junior leadership and front-line staff will help ensure that any aspirational or theoretical planning is based in reality. This perspective is critical throughout the planning process, but particularly important during the implementation phase of strategic planning, when the overarching vision and goals are translated into activities with clear responsibility, timing, and resource needs.

The patrons support, protect, and/or champion the restaurant. Who are the patrons in your strategic planning kitchen?Patron

Engaging restaurant patrons is important for two reasons:

  1. We want to understand where else they are eating, how it compares, and where they’d like to be eating;
  2. We want them to be “regulars” and tell their friends why your restaurant is the best place in town.

How do you build this rapport? You might make them feel like valued customers by asking for their feedback. “How was your meal?”, “How was the service?” If they tell you they would have preferred an Alfredo sauce as opposed to a Bolognese, you will likely thank them for their suggestion, but weigh this against a number of other factors, such as: Do we have Alfredo sauce? How does this pair with our wines? Does our staff know how to make Alfredo sauce? You get the point. You want your patrons to feel like their opinions are valued and you certainly want them to keep coming back, but, unless there is overwhelming support for changing the menu (and doing so aligns with your core competencies), you are not going to yield decision-making authority to a few unsatisfied customers.

In a strategic planning process, we typically engage program beneficiaries, funders, and partners for the same reason. We want them to know they are important stakeholders, that their opinion matters, and to give them a chance to inform the process. While their buy-in is critical to the success of the plan, don’t forget that they are eating at other restaurants and have other tastes. For this reason, they are welcome in your dining room, but not in your kitchen.

What is our role as consultants? Where do we fit with this kitchen analogy?

As consultants, we partner with the chef de cuisine – serving as a third-party, objective set of eyes and ears – gauging the temperature in the kitchen, in the dining room, and at competing restaurants. We need to have some exposure to the kitchen in order to understand how the restaurant works – how its dishes are prepared, plated, and served. We need to be able to observe the feel and flow of the dining room – how the patrons are responding to the menu. Furthermore, like the patrons, we are checking out the competition to determine what makes the restaurant unique and how it could make changes (we note that the restaurant next door benefits from having patio seating – are you able to offer this as well? Would patio seating suit your restaurant’s ambiance?).

Ultimately, it is our goal that, year in and year out, you maintain your relevance, even as neighboring restaurants are opening and closing, and tastes are changing.

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