As a nonprofit looks to embark on a strategic plan, engaging stakeholders (staff, board, community members, funders, and clients) early in the planning can lead to greater understanding, and ultimately involvement and ownership throughout the process. Designing a well-crafted environmental scan gives you the chance to pause, listen, and maybe even be surprised with ideas and information.
Simply put, environmental scanning is a process used by an organization (or business) to gather, use, and analyze internal strengths and challenges as well as external opportunities and threats. Ultimately this process allows organizations to:
- Make informed decisions about the overall health of their organization.
- Develop strategies in response to potential opportunities or pending threats.
- Improve organizational performance.
- Achieve business objectives.
- Forecast the future.
- Reinforce their north star.
The Strategy Group (TSG) uses environmental scans in our strategic plans as we believe that no organization exists in a static environment. The more stakeholders reached through conversation groups and interviews and queried through online surveys – the richer the resulting data will likely be. In our planning experience, a robust environmental scan leads to a more comprehensive and informed plan.
Environmental scan reports include:
- A SWOT Analysis (a common method of environmental scanning; SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats)
- A detailed narrative knitting together the 4-5 key themes identified from the focus group, interview, and online survey data, which has been sorted and ranked
Here are some recent examples of environmental scans from strategic planning and lessons learned:
Parents League of New York: Focusing on Meaningful Membership
As a preeminent provider of school advisory service and parenting resources, Parents League of New York (PLNY) provides an invaluable range of programs and services to families and schools. For two months in January and February of 2022, TSG conducted stakeholder interviews and focus groups with PLNY staff; board members; parent members; volunteers; and authors, speakers, and presenters who often work with PLNY, and initiated two surveys, one for current and former members, and school members. In total we heard from 300 people.
The PLNY environmental scan reinforced that a generation of young families now have a multitude of choices from which to find their information. As PLNY looks ahead, it will be thinking creatively about its membership model for families and schools in order to stay competitive in the marketplace. PLNY also seeks to return to hosting more in-person events, as it had prior to the pandemic, to engage both its membership and the community-at-large, another learning from the scan.
American Savings Foundation: Committed to Community
From time to time, organizations hire a third-party consultant like TSG to discover community needs and perceptions as an important step in creating a systematic and data-driven strategic plan. This was the case with American Savings Foundation (ASF) who used TSG for their community needs assessment in anticipation of starting their strategic planning process. ASF provides grants to local nonprofit organizations and college scholarships to hard-working students in need of financial support. In April and May of 2022, consultants from TSG conducted community roundtables and individual interviews with a diverse group of nonprofit leaders from New Britain and Waterbury. In addition, a community roundtable was held with parents from the New Britain community.
ASF’s community needs assessment reinforced a focus for increased funding with existing programs. People want to invest in the future of children and with the rising cost of education, there will be a continued need for scholarships and pathways to workforce development programs. And organizations called for ASF to double its efforts as a community convenor. ASF is revered for its commitment to learning and being open to new ideas and must remain at the forefront of bringing together nonprofits, businesses, parents, and leaders in dialogue to better the community.
Stamford Public Schools (SPS): Engaging Parents to Improve Communication
During the spring of 2021, Stamford Public Schools (SPS) worked with Stamford Cradle to Career (SC2C) and the Family and Community Engagement Advisory, a committee of parents, community partners, and district staff to further evaluate themes from a Fall 2020 parent survey. This process led SPS to hire The Strategy Group in April 2021 to conduct a series of parent focus groups with the goal of gaining their insights on how to improve messaging and communication with teachers and the school system as SPS prepared for the 2021-22 school year. Over the course of one month, eight focus groups were conducted via Zoom, three in Spanish.
The resounding message from the SPS scan was that parents were enormously grateful for the focus group conversations and to have their voices heard. Parents recognize and understand that communicating with 18,000+ people is a challenge. The overarching message TSG heard in all focus groups was for the SPS to be transparent and forward facing with their communication – sharing as much as possible with their upcoming school plans as early as possible. Parents crave information about clubs, dances, parent involvement at school, technology, etc., and the more transparent and communicative SPS can be, the better. Just as the district and schools are eager to plan and prepare, so too are parents.
If you want to be fully engaged with the success of your nonprofit and are curious about an environmental scan and gathering information, start by asking some simple questions around focused around your organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Use our simple guide to get started.
And then reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to talk about environmental scans, strategic planning, or anything else we might help you with!
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