Strategic planning: does the executive director have a role?

Posted in strategic plan / executive director / board of directors

Strategic planning: does the executive director have a role?

Heading into strategic planning season can be a confusing time for a non-profit executive director. Strategic planning can feel like it is all about the board who will be spending time reviewing and interpreting the wants and needs of clients, members, and stakeholders. The same wants and needs the ED and team have spent the ENTIRE YEAR gathering.

Work behind the scenes.

A non-profit executive director will spend a great deal of time developing the strategic planning session with a big focus on finding the right meeting location, booking hotel rooms for out-of-town board members, planning catering, and even finding goofy prizes to keep the meeting fun and fast-paced.

An external facilitator will be contracted to work with the board to lead them through all the planning steps to create the perfect strategic goals. If the board chair is confident, s/he might work directly with the facilitator to plan all the session details and…the executive director can feel a little left out. Before you start feeling too depressed, remember, most of an executive director’s input into strategic planning will happen in more subtle, and behind the scenes, ways.

Provide data reports all year long.

A non-profit board can’t expect to write strong strategic goals by inventing them out of the blue. The board has a responsibility to create the kinds of strategic goals the clients, members, and stakeholders really want. The board gets its data to understand the wants and needs of the clients, members, and stakeholders by reviewing the reports the executive director provides throughout the year.

An executive director collects the data and feedback from each program and service the non-profit runs, then summarizes it to present to the board at each board meeting. Board members rely heavily on the executive director to provide strong summative data about how well (or not) the organization’s programs and services are meeting the strategic goals.

The summary data reports are the foundation upon which the board will build strategic goals for the coming years.

Curate the info for the planning session.

Rather than hoping a board will remember everything they reviewed from summary data reports throughout the year, the executive director will attend the strategic planning session with a collection of carefully curated information.

An executive director will bring along, in both print and hard copy formats, copies of the final year-end report on how well the organization’s programs and services met the strategic goals. Although the board will have reviewed this report when the operating year ended, they revisit the report as the central document that feeds strategic planning.

If the final year-end report is quite short, the executive director might also bring along longer data reports for reference. Just like the year-end report, any additional reports, even if they are 75+ pages, are brought along in both hard copy and digital formats. This allows individual board members to flip through documents on their own or have collective discussions viewing documents presentation-style.

Other reports an executive director might bring to planning, include:

  • Demographic details/maps for clients, members, and stakeholder.
  • Year-to-year comparative numbers for all user groups.
  • Reports on strategic requirements for major funders.
  • Demographic details/maps for board members
  • Operational interpretation of program results.

Curating the information given to the board at planning has two purposes. It helps the board develop better strategic goals. It also ensures the board is focusing on the right information, and not developing goals that are so far out of alignment that the staff team wouldn’t know how to meet them.

Act as a knowledge hub for Q/A.

While it is the board of directors that will get all the accolades for writing a brilliant strategic plan, the executive director and team can feel reassured in their contribution to the process because they are the researchers that provided all the data for that plan.

During the planning session, the executive director will support and inform the board’s discussions by providing information, answering questions, and acting as a curator of the program data collected the year prior.

Schedule time to gather data along with markers and flip chart paper.

As strategic planning draws near, and executive director can prepare by thinking about the information to bring along that will inform the board and make the development of strategic goals easier, and more relevant to the clients, members, and stakeholders.

Hard copies can be printed and sorted into binder for each board member, along with digital copies on a thumb drive for presentation display.

What questions do you have?

An executive director plays a critical role in the success of strategic planning but that doesn’t mean it is always easy to figure out what information to provide. Did I provide the details you were looking for? If you have questions, I want to know! Please use the form on the right side of the page to let me know.


Hi, I'm Christie. I help executive directors develop the systems and processes needed to run a non-profit.

I learned early in my career, there is no non-profit school. Browsing the internet for resources from big-city experts doesn’t provide practical solutions to balance the budget, write a work plan, or conduct an employee evaluation. Leadership development tips don’t really resonate when you are also taking out the recycling and cleaning the washroom.

I created so non-profit leaders never need to wonder how to do the job – no matter how big or small that job is.

I have been the executive director of small-team, small-budget, non-profits for 20+ years. My experience isn’t theory. It is the real, operational, and practical solutions I use every day.

I love my work and I want to help you love yours too.

© Christie Saas 2023 All Rights Reserved

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