by Holly McGuire, Director of Economic Opportunity
As some of our readers may be aware, Neighborhood Partnerships embarked on a strategic planning process in mid-2021, supported by the UPRISE Collective. In August our Board of Directors approved the resulting document, our Identity Statement and Strategic Intention, which we are very excited to be launching at our fast approaching RE:Conference 2022! We hope you’ll join us there to engage with the amazing programming we have planned, and to learn more about our new Vision, Mission, and strategic intentions. As a part of our ongoing equity conversation with you all—our collaborators and partners—we wanted to share some key elements of our process. One element of our process was to include our entire staff in the work, and for many of us, this was the first time we’d engaged in developing a strategic plan. We hope that this can support others as they consider how they would like to leverage the significant time and investment required for this kind of project.
As we have honed the focus of our organization to center race equity and economic justice, we have identified that our current capitalist economy, based in white supremacy and patriarchy, was designed and continues to exploit and extract. Providing some balance to the weight of that, we have also held to the knowledge and inspiration that—since they are designed by people—these systems and structures can also be redesigned to support, to redistribute, and to uplift our communities. We’d had a strategic planning process on the back burner, in response to an almost pro forma desire from funders to know organizations have one, but what really sparked movement was internal pressure to engage with that design challenge.
Like many in the nonprofit industrial complex, NP is often driven by reactivity, and the urgency built into nonprofit business-as-usual, jumping from emergency to emergency. We could feel into our hope for a different future, but we did not have a clearly identified north star, a beacon to turn toward in the rush of all of the deeply important and necessary work in front of us every day. And we were feeling the toll of being in the daily position of knowing there is an avalanche of need to just shore up the relentless harm caused by an unjust economy and insufficient housing for all, much less transform the systems that keep it this way. This toll was heightened in the pandemic, when despite the “pause” of the immediate shut down in March 2020, for our organization, as for so many in our fields, workload and pace actually increased, in the push to ensure that those most impacted were met as well as we were able. There is a level of burnout and fatigue that comes from workload but is compounded by the reality that the need is so much greater than our ability to meet it.
In this context, using our equity tools to consider the impacts of this chronic state of overwork, we knew we had to find a way to discern what work was ours to do. One of our core internal agreements, the one we center perhaps most often, is “Slow down.” We knew we needed to slow down and bring the required time, energy, and resources to get very clear on what our vision for the future was. Only then might we discern how our organization could contribute most effectively to getting there.
Our consultants, UPRISE Collective, brought a backward design map to us, and we started with what is often the traditional endpoint of a strategic plan, the fine-grained detail of the work we engage daily, in our policy advocacy and organizing, our coalition work with our many partners, our administration and granting work with IDAs. We considered how work had been inflected by shifts and learnings begun in our equity journey, and then fueled by the transformational moment we are living in. This was an often messy part of the process, and staff often expressed feeling frustrated and unclear on the destination.
Out of the mundane, however, we were able to start glimpsing and deepening our understanding of the values that bring us to this work. Centering our key collaborators and partners we brought their values into the discussion. As we honed the core values that we condensed from that work, the ones that best represented the intersection of our many life experiences, the organization’s work, and the communities we are committed to support and advocate with, we could then see how our practices and values shape our understanding of how change happens.
We had a not uncommon goal to finish much more quickly than we did! But as our process centered race equity, and we applied our equity lens to our developing vision, we were called in to slow our process repeatedly. We asked each other to mull, to reflect, to engage each other in dialog, and to listen to understand. We solicited feedback from key partners in the work. All our staff brought their lived experience, skill, and commitment to this process, as did our board members. We asked, again and again, “Are the words we are putting on paper careful, clear and simple, and reflective of the emergent, responsive practice we are engaged in?”
At the end of this intense, both exhausting and fun, very generative process we have emerged with something (as is often our style!) not quite aligned with a traditional nonprofit strategic plan. In line with our new mission’s identification of a commitment to transformational change, it is a document that centers people, and values belonging, healing, and love. We hope that when you have an opportunity to engage with it that it elicits in you, as it does in us, a sense of connection to our shared humanity that will call you to join us as we refocus our energies to reach toward a culture and economy of abundance where everyone has what they need to thrive.
It is a tremendous challenge to commit staff time and organizational resource to what can feel like a luxury of visioning and strategy. But as we all face the cascading economic, housing, climate, public health, and political crises of our time, we need to support each other to prioritize visioning, and the development of strategies to discern where we can most effectively put our most valuable resources, our human energy and investment.