Choosing Our Direction: Workbook 1-What Do We Do Now?

This workbook takes the necessary first step of asking the question: "What are we doing now?"
Choosing Our Direction: Workbook 1-What Do We Do Now? - Articles



This workbook is one of five in the Choosing Our Direction series designed to assist your group, organization, or nonprofit agency in developing an effective strategic plan that can help you strengthen and sustain your organization’s achievements. These workbooks can also help provide you with the insight you need to accurately and realistically guide your future. Even more importantly, these materials will help you outline an effective course of action that will make your strategic planning efforts pay dividends long into the future.

This workbook takes the necessary first step of exploring the question: “What are we doing now?” Because effective strategic planning is ultimately geared toward developing and implementing a plan for addressing the gaps between what you do now and what you’ll need to do in the future, only by having a realistic view of what your organization currently does—and why—can you begin the process of putting together an effective long-term plan.

Organizational Assessment—Who We Are and What We Do

Conducting an organizational assessment is really nothing more than exploring what your organization does now and for whom. To undertake such an assessment effectively we have to take a look at three separate components:

  1. current goals and objectives;
  2. program and activities; and
  3. communications and organizational structure.

The following discussion and exercises will help you address each of these issues.

Assessing Overall Goals, Objectives, and Results

Whether your organization has been in existence for many years or several weeks, a common sense of who you are and what audiences you serve is essential to your long-term success. Quite simply, this is the only effective foundation upon which you can build any long-term plan for your future.

While there will be separate opportunities for reviewing other data and perspectives about your organization in Workbook 2: What Shapes Our Future? let’s begin by looking at some of the more important fundamental questions related to the internal day-to-day operations of your organization.

Exercise #1 (60–90 minutes)

Download the Exercise 1 worksheet . Have your group answer the following questions or fill them out on the worksheet. Depending on your group’s structure and circumstances, not all of the following questions may be equally relevant. As such, your organization may choose to spend more time on some of these questions than others. However, it is important to address as many of these as possible, as they set the stage for many of the discussions we will have as we move through the entire strategic planning process.

  1. Who are we? If someone asked us what our organization does, how would we answer the question?
  2. What are the basic issues our organization seeks to address? Has this changed over the last 3–5 years?
  3. What are our organization’s main philosophies and values?
  4. What makes our organization distinctive or unique?
  5. Who are our customers or the primary beneficiaries of our services? How have they changed? How are they likely to change?
  6. What have been our results? Have we measured and recorded these as effectively as we should? Where are these documented?
  7. How effective has our staff been at addressing the needs of this organization and our clientele? Do we have measures of this and methods for addressing improvements?

Assessing Your Organization’s Program and Activities

Individual programs are also an important part of your organizational assessment.

Taking the time to look at these individually and in the context of your other strategic planning and visioning questions allows you to focus on the overall goals and the methods you employ to achieve these goals.

Exercise #2 (at least 60–90 minutes)

Download the Exercise 2 worksheet. For each of your current programs and activities, review the questions. Consider how well each of your organization’s programs fits together.

Organizational Structure and Communication

The hallmark of all effective organizations is that they are organized in an efficient and sensible manner consistent with their mission. They also communicate effectively. While these issues are addressed in greater detail further along in the strategic planning process, it is critical at this juncture that you begin to get a sense of your current structure and how well you communicate. The essence of this element of your overall organizational assessment is to ascertain how well the major entities of your organization are working on their own and as well as with each other.

How Effective Is Your Board of Directors?

The role of an organization’s board of directors—and how well it meets those responsibilities—is probably the single most important set of internal issues an organization faces. If your board of directors is not functioning well and meeting its challenges, chances are little else your organization takes on is going to be as effective or successful as it could be. Major functions of most boards of directors include:

  • Establishing and maintaining the legal entity, knowing the by-laws, and making contracts on behalf of the association.
  • Acting as trustee of members’ interests by ensuring that the assets are secure and that the quality of service, programs, activities, and the prestige and goodwill of the organization are preserved.
  • Assuring that the purposes, objectives, goals, and policies are current and followed. Evaluates the major facilities and resources.
  • Providing operating requirements for qualified management and financial resources, and generating member and community support. Ensures that productive board and committee meetings are held.
  • Preventing unauthorized actions. Reviews reports, staff performance, and standards. Provides for reports to the members.
  • Ensuring that the organization is effectively represented in the community and among its members.

It is important to realize, however, that the role and expectations of boards vary depending on the structure of the organization. Boards with paid staff often have the responsibilities listed above as well as numerous duties related to providing direction and resources to staff members. Boards with little or no paid staff are often far more active in the day-to-day activities and accomplishments of the organization, providing the brains and well as the brawns of the organization. Still other organizations, mostly those that have limited control of the financial resources of an organization yet have paid staff at their disposal, play more of an advisory role with little actual authority. The important point is to assess the duties and performance of your board in light of the actual responsibilities and authority they have. In many organizations this is not always clear and can often cause confusion. Some organizations find that what they really need is a more concerted effort at board development rather than a strategic planning effort. If this is the case with your organization you may want to address this before proceeding further.

Information You May Want to Gather with Respect to Your Board

  • Do board members’ individual skills contribute to the mission of the organization and responsibilities of the board?
  • Does your board effectively represent your organization to the public and external stakeholders?
  • Does your board effectively contribute to positive communications within the organization?
  • Does your board effectively have the training and resources it needs to successfully undertake its responsibilities?
  • Do your board members under-stand and agree with the organization’s mission, their role within the organization, and the expectations of that role?
  • Do your board members set a positive example for other members and staff?

How Effective Are Your Committees and Task Forces?

Contrary to what some critics claim, committees don’t have to be “many-headed monsters.” Committees can open avenues for sharing work and responsibility among group members. Given realistic goal setting and careful selection of members and leaders, committees can achieve a great deal.

However, unless a specific committee job can be stated in writing and is directly related to the mission and activities of the organization, a committee is probably unnecessary. Confusion and vagueness about a committee’s purpose often leads to frustration.

Most organizations have standing committees as well as special committees as circumstances require. Standing committees are reappointed regularly to handle ongoing concerns. Examples include membership, finance, publicity, and program committees. Special committees are “ad hoc” or some-times referred to as a “task force.” They are appointed as needed to accomplish special objectives within a specified period of time. They rarely exist longer than 18 months. Examples include a special project committee, a building committee, and a one-time special event committee.
The parent group’s responsibility is to define the committee’s purpose and specify its limitations and responsibilities. A clear understanding of these factors enables commit-tee members to function more effectively. In new situations, a group may have to develop its own goals within a broad framework.

In general, effective committees:

  • Have a written statement of purpose that all members have reviewed.
  • Are chaired by individuals that guide the committee process.
  • Consist of carefully selected members who are interested, qualified, and compatible.
  • Are assisted by staff people who act as advisers and administrators.
  • Carefully plan their agendas.
  • Approach assignments one step at a time.
  • Have a sense of priorities and of timing.
  • Keep thorough minutes and records.
  • Are periodically infused with new members.
  • Regularly evaluate their activities against their statement of purpose.

Exercise #3 (time allocation will depend on committee structure)

For each of the standing and special committees within your organization or group, download Exercise 3 and take a few moments to answer each of the questions. Have each of your committees’ members address the questions related to their committee’s activities. If you have participants in the strategic planning process that are not formal members of any particular committee, assign them to one that’s appropriate to ensure that you have input from all those involved. After completing this individual committee work, bring the whole group back together again to review each group’s responses and ensure that everyone has a full appreciation of all the organizations structural components and responsibilities.

A Word or Two about Staff

If an organization is large enough or has been in business long enough to have a paid staff, the role, responsibilities, and expectations of boards and committees are very different from those that have no paid staff.

Guiding Principles in Board and Staff Roles and Responsibilities

  • Executive director acts under the control, direction, and within the policies established by the board.
  • Staff, paid and unpaid (volunteer), carry out the work of the organization under the direction of the executive.
  • The board hires and supervises the executive.
  • The executive hires and super-vises all other staff.
  • The board and the executive/staff act as partners, with the board being the dominant partner.
  • The executive has the responsibility to support and to help the board develop its governing role.
  • The executive acts as a bridge between the staff and board.
  • The formal line of communication between the board and staff is through the executive.
  • The board chair provides the official link between the board and executive.
  • A good working relationship between the board chair and executive is critical.
  • Good policy is drafted by board and staff together.

Connections, Coordination, and Communications

While the discussion above has focused primarily on the individual components of your organization, you need to keep in mind that the hallmark of any effective organization is how well these components work together—how well they share ideas and resources, work toward the same goals, and are aware of each other’s efforts and ideals. The exercise on the next page is intended to help you take a “bird’s-eye” view of what your organization is doing in this regard.

Exercise #4 (time allocation will depend on committee structure)

Download Exercise 4 . Have every participant in your strategic planning effort complete the survey of questions. (You may choose to have additional stakeholders complete the survey if it is appropriate to the strategic planning efforts you are undertaking.) The intent of this exercise is to assess both the level of effective communication and cooperation in your organization as well as the degree of consensus among members and committees.

Once everyone has completed the survey, compile the subtotals for each area and the overall total. Finally, compute the overall average for the organization—for each question and area. If your organization is functioning smoothly and everyone is communicating effectively, the overall averages to each question (and within each area) will be high and there won’t be a great deal of variation among responses.(If you would like, it may also be appropriate to calculate the standard deviation of scores around each response.) If, on the other hand, your average scores are relatively low or there is consider-able variation among scores, you may want to take the time to discuss why this might be the case and, most importantly, what you may want to do about it. In truth, many organizations take on strategic planning efforts when what they really need is to focus on board or organizational development. This may or may not be the case with your organization, but it is worth keeping in mind as you move forward.


Having worked through the exercises and discussion presented above, you now have a much clearer and, hopefully, agreed-upon snapshot of where your organization is today, what you do, and why. You are now well on your way to beginning to assess the internal and external forces that shape the future of your organization ( Workbook 2 ) and begin to develop or redefine your vision and mission statements, set and prioritize goals and objectives ( Workbook 3 ), and establish an action plan to meeting these goals ( Workbook 4 ).

About the Choosing Our Direction Materials

Effective groups and organizations have clear goals and objectives and are focused on working toward accomplishing these. Choosing Our Direction is a strategic planning tool for groups or organizations to become more effective by developing or redeveloping such goals and objectives for their future. It helps groups identify who they are, what they currently do, what they want to do in the future, and develop a usable plan for getting there. The workbooks in the Choosing Our Direction program were designed to be used sequentially and are intended to provide a framework for strategic planning. However, depending upon the needs of the group or organization, the workbooks can be used independently to focus on specific concerns or issues.

No two strategic planning efforts are ever the same. Differing organizational needs and circumstances often require different strategic planning approaches. It is also important to remember that good strategic planning is never really finished—and provides for a continual process of reevaluation and refocus. The Choosing Our Direction workbooks are a complete strategic planning program with exercises to guide your group through this process. Depending upon the needs of your group, these workbooks can also be supplemented by additional tools and exercises.

Prepared by Walt Whitmer, extension educator, community and economic development in Juniata County; William Shuffstall, extension educator, community and economic development in Clearfield County; and Timothy W. Kelsey, professor of agricultural economics.