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Is strategic planning a moral imperative for not-for-profits?

Organisations can act without morals or ethics. The past several years have exposed corporate disgrace in many places. For-profit greed, hubris and narcissistic power has led to crisis after crisis (see John Harris’s article ‘politics and corporate disgrace’ in The Guardian Weekly). But one could enquire why we would expect anything else? For-profits seek profit. But what about our expectations of not-for-profits?

In Australia not-for-profits are generally in receipt of significant taxation concessions on the basis that they exist for the relief of poverty and destitution and have a mission to alleviate disadvantage and address systems that trap people in dependency.  They proclaim a moral mission.

The word moral is used in many ways – mostly as an accusation against someone who has not played by the ‘Hollywood rules of engagement’ or contravened the rules of Christendom (often the two are confused). At an organisational level, it seems fair to assume that in proclaiming a ‘moral’ mission one has a ‘moral’ imperative to achieve that mission. To achieve that it could be argued that strategic planning and critical reflection are two ‘moral’ imperatives for the not-for-profit sector, as crucial tools in delivering on that mission.

Strategic planning in many not-for-profits is rarely fully utilised as a tool for strategic reflection. Many organisations use strategic planning to fill in tables and identify tasks – more like a task list or job schedule – than fully utilising the time to consider the major strategic questions they face both as individuals within a not-for-profit and as a collection of individuals that make up the organisation.

Who we are shapes and forms our worldview. Jeffrey Skilling the former CEO of Enron (now in prison) said “strategic planning is worthless. The only people that do it are the ones who don’t know how to make money.” There is no question that Mr Skilling had a clear worldview – a set of values and commitments that shaped his view of who he was and what Enron should be.

Our worldview shapes how open or closed we are to new ideas and ways of doing things. Our worldview prioritises things for us. We bring with us all sorts of presuppositions and assumptions when we engage in any process of planning – for many, the assumption that planning is itself a waste of time – like our friend from Enron.

The meanings we choose that inform our actions are directly embedded in the worldview we all have and our unconscious acceptance of the worldviews we hold inevitably determines how we ‘do business’.

Can we make the assumption that the Enron worldview is not one that has infiltrated the not-for-profit sector?

Strategic (and critical) reflection is one tool to guard against the worldview that strategic planning is useless.  Critical thinking and analysis about why we choose the meanings we do and how they affect the performance of our organisations (and indeed the way we live our lives and the effect that has on others who are struggling in society) is an essential tool in unmasking systems and structures that promote injustice and dilute the achievement of mission and vision.

Critical  (and strategic) thinking is also an essential tool in unmasking the systems and assumptions (the worldviews and the unconscious commitments) that often can keep organisations from excellence in customer service and delivery.

In fact unconscious worldviews and presuppositions can be the very enemy of innovation, planning and the development of new models of service delivery that achieve the ‘moral’ mandate of not-for-profits in creating better systems and opportunities for those ‘living with destitution and poverty’.

Simply put if you are going to claim the moral high-ground as a not-for-profit, you need to make sure you have the relevant tools and processes in place to maintain that ground. Critical strategic reflection and strategic planning are both essential tools for non-profits – one could even argue they are ‘moral’ imperatives.

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