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Book Review: Field Guide to Nonprofit Strategic Planning and Facilitation
By Carter McNamara
Copyright 2003, Authenticity Consulting
284 pages

review by Jane Garthson of
Jane Garthson, Mills Garthson & Associates, Toronto, Canada
Strengthening Canada's nonprofits through enhanced leadership & ethics

review appeared in Canadian Fundraiser eNews, September 30, 2003, Article 7 of 11

Carter McNamara is well known and respected in the USA and on the Internet for practical advice and resources for nonprofit organizations, particularly through the online Free Management Library and his three Nuts and Bolts Guides. This book continues that tradition, offering flexible and practical advice for anyone playing a lead role in strategic planning in or for a nonprofit.

The flexible wording hides a lot of subtle persuasion. He does not insist that strategic planning be lead by the Board, but he makes that the only reasonable choice for most organizations once they work through the Design Plan for a Plan section. The worksheets suggest an approach, or choice of good approaches. Then they end with questions such as "If you decide not to schedule a training session for your planners, how will information on the strategic planning approaches be provided to planners?" A training session suddenly looks very sensible, and the organization will likely make time for it.

In a few cases, Carter does insist on particular approaches. These are limited to critical issues, such as not allowing the CEO to be the facilitator. It is entirely appropriate to be forceful occasionally; allowing the CEO to facilitate usually dooms the whole strategic planning process.

Some of the worksheets will seem very simple and obvious, but having them saves a lot of time compared to designing from scratch in each organization. And planners using them are less likely to leave out important items. They are available online so facilitators can download and adapt the forms as needed, a great time-saver.

Experienced nonprofit strategic planning consultants will likely differ with Carter on details here and there. In my case, I use a different approach to Vision and Values. However, the guide is so non-dogmatic and basic that I would not expect serious disagreements, or difficulty adapting his approach on those details without losing the value of the guide. And he allows for differences in terminology to suit individual preferences.

Internal champions of planning will find Part I, Understanding Strategic Planning, very valuable in convincing their organization to proceed and in making the initial decisions about timing, scope and other up-front considerations. The people who are most involved with the actual planning would do well to read all of Part II, Relevant, Realistic and Flexible Strategic Planning, including the worksheets and other resources in the appendix. Only those facilitating or choosing a facilitator are likely to look at Part III, Foundations for Effective Facilitation.

Carter was wise to separate out these Parts, as the guide is daunting to look at and clumsy to read. I needed two or three bookmarks going at all times, and I still was not clear when to read Appendices A to F. Despite the clear typography, white space and diagrams, the guide is still far from appealing to pick up and get through. However, it shares this problem with most workbooks for major projects, and some even split such information into two volumes. You cannot get this level of help from a small book.

At least two people, the Chair of the Planning Committee and the facilitator, should really read it through, so they can answer questions about the entire process and understand the time lines needed. After a once-through, the guide becomes a good ready reference and the user can concentrate on information about each stage as it proceeds. While it would help to have the whole committee read the guide, I doubt this will happen in most organizations.

I definitely recommend the guide for all strategic planning consultants to nonprofits, CEOs, and senior staff or volunteers who will be making recommendations about strategic planning to their boards and senior management teams. Their copies can be lent to other members of the planning teams as needed. It will be a worthwhile and frequently used addition to the bookshelf. Buyers just need to find time on trips, (or during a power failure in my case!), to concentrate on that initial read. Don't get distracted by lighter fare that may look more appealing but will not be as useful to your organization.

The book is available at http://www.authenticityconsulting.com/pubs/SP_gdes/SP_pubs.htm

Jane Garthson
Principal Consultant, Mills Garthson & Associates
Dedicated to Strengthening Canada's Voluntary Sector through enhanced leadership & ethics
(877) 645-5417 or jane at garthsonleadership.ca