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  • Pat Libby

How is Good Strategic Planning Like Being on a Reality TV Show?

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

I have a (well-deserved) reputation for being something of a nerd: I graduated from MIT, have written a few textbooks, enjoy opera, read The New York Times daily, love Downton Abbey… you get the picture. But I also like goofy things too, and on occasion find myself absorbed watching an episode of What Not to Wear on TLC.

If you’ve never seen the show, it goes something like this: friends nominate someone who has a bizarre sense of style, for a makeover by professional fashionistas who change her hair, makeup and wardrobe to transform the former awkward duckling into a swan.

Her friends and family applaud wildly in disbelief at the big reveal, and everyone is happily amazed and relieved that she no longer looks exceedingly weird.

It’s completely sexist and ridiculous, and makes for a compelling ½ hour of TV after a long day of nerdom. It also reminds me a lot of the strategic planning work I do with nonprofits.


Because the most important thing about strategic planning is getting the principals of an organization – the staff and the board that is – to not only take a hard look in the mirror at their organization, but to also agree to listen to the comments of people who are outside the organization or, at the very least, not in the inner circle.

Those outside perspectives are critically important to helping an organization affirm its strengths so it can build on them, and to recognize areas that aren’t as strong as they need to be so that those can be addressed.

If that doesn’t happen, then we end up wearing the same outdated hair style from the 90's that used to look good way back when but doesn’t any more.

Strategic planning consulting, or as I prefer think about it, setting strategic direction for an organization, should always involve gathering data from a variety of key stakeholders such as an organization’s members and funders, as well as from potential and existing community partners.

Moreover, and this is the really important part, that data gathering needs to be done in a confidential manner by someone who is objective (i.e., an outside party, like a consultant) so that those people

After all, it’s much easier for Stacy and Clinton to tell the makeover candidate that she looks well… odd, than it is for her friends to tell her that directly (which is precisely why they nominate her for a turn on the show).

Besides, the friends might be able to see what’s not working for her but not know what advice to give her to change her look or, in the case of an organization, the advice needed to hone its strategy.

Being able to face up to what others say about your nonprofit or philanthropy takes almost as much courage as going on reality TV and having your entire wardrobe thrown in a trashcan (they actually do that!).

MANA de San Diego, one of my nonprofit consulting clients from 2015, took all of these brave steps by having me facilitate focus groups with their members, use the results to conduct a comprehensive member survey, and interview many corporate, nonprofit and public sector players to hear their views. All of this information gave the board added insight into the organization which allowed us to create a dynamic new strategic direction and plan that fits them perfectly.



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