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Lessons from the NFL: What they can teach us about Strategic Planning and Community Engagement

Strategic Planning Community Engagement Ideas

It’s no surprise that the NFL is going through some major changes, ones that are forcing the organization to think more consciously and critically not only about their bottom line, but also about who their key constituents are, both on and off the field. Although professional football players of color have long used their platforms as a way to bring attention to social justice issues, when Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem in 2016 in protest to the treatment of African Americans and other minorities in this country, he brought to the surface a flood of controversial issues regarding, race, class, police brutality, and the commodification of black athletes. It’s fair to say that the NFL has been pretty tepid in their response to this issue, offering very little by way of making a statement that shows they understand what Kaepernick is really protesting. And quite frankly, when 70 percent of the league’s players and only 7 percent of head coaches are black, and 94 percent of franchise owners are white, now would be the perfect time for the league to gain insight on their strategic direction.[1]

Throughout any strategic planning process, we never promise our clients that it will be easy. In fact, we often warn them that the process will likely be uncomfortable as it deals with issues of race and class and that the information gathered may force them to grapple with key issues as they pertain to their work and the communities they serve.  It is also our practice to encourage our clients to be intentional about the voices they include in the strategic planning process in order to ensure that all of their key constituents’ needs are heard and valued.

If we could do Strategic Planning for the NFL

For the NFL, this would mean making a decision to not only speak to franchise owners or head coaches about the direction of the organization. It would mean ensuring that the 1,187 black players in the league[2] are included in the process and have their voices heard. It would mean seeing them as actual human beings who have the right and ability to use their spheres of influence to bring attention to social justice issues, and most importantly, it would mean seeing them for who they are: black men who, despite their professional athlete status, still have to deal with the inequalities that come with being a minority in this country.

The Possibilities

There are middle of the road strategic plans, ones that encourage an organization to stay the course, and there are transformative plans, those that not only force an organization to move beyond the status quo but force them to really lean into their goals and strategies in a way that makes clear who and what the organization stands for.

Perhaps your organization is not at a turning point as pivotal as the NFL. But, it’s fair to say that as the political and social climate in this country change, it is important to constantly be thinking about how issues of race and class play a role within your organization. Look internally at your workforce, or externally, out into the communities you serve. What are they saying and how are you choosing to listen or not listen to their needs? How are you choosing to value their voices as you plan for the future of your organization?






Where Do You Live? The Importance of Listening to the Community

Guidance for Strategic Planning, Community Planning, and Change

As humans we often identify with where we live as a way to tell part of the story of who we are. So do you live in Richmond or RVA? Do you live in Northside or Southside? If you have a preference, where does that preference come from? What if your name had a negative connotation to it - informed by the feelings of others?  Below read three short stories on the importance of honoring the community voice in any kind of work. 

Listening to Youth: Changing The Name of a Program

In 2017, Richmond Peace Education Center launched the Gilpin Court Youth Peace Team. This innovative project took the amazing goodness of the Richmond Youth Peace Project and deployed it into a place based initiative to teach peer conflict resolution skills to teens living in and around Gilpin Court, one of Richmond's Public Housing Neighborhoods. Within the first few meetings the teens gathered objected to being called the Gilpin Court Youth Peace Team and renamed themselves the Jackson Ward Youth Peace Team. To them, their home was Jackson Ward.  RPEC made the shift, honoring the voice of the teen leaders. 

East End or Church Hill: Impact of Gentrification on Neighborhood Names

Earlier this year as part of a larger project for a nonprofit working in the East End we gathered neighbors, staff, board, and community partners together to explore the brand and words being used by this nonprofit. While we explored the brand of the nonprofit and began a list of words we liked and those we didn't like, the idea of where the organization did its work and the boundaries of that work came up. One of the neighbors said something along the lines of - "What image does everyone have when we say East End?" This launched into a great discussion on the boundaries of the East End and the negative connotation that it has in the city from other people. We explored why people who live in Church Hill might not identify with East End and how East End is most often improperly associated with low income and poverty, when in fact it encompasses many diverse neighborhoods. The organization ultimately decided to own the expansive definition of East End to describe their program location. 

Manchester or Blackwell: The Story of Historic Tax Designations and The Role of Neighborhood Voices

 Used with permission from Leaders of The New South - Council on Community Housing. For more information, please visit their Facebook page. 

Used with permission from Leaders of The New South - Council on Community Housing. For more information, please visit their Facebook page. 

Manchester is seeing a significant amount of investment from outside groups. There are restaurants and new housing being added regularly. To leverage this investment to its fullest, developers are seeking to take a current Historic Designation that is active in Manchester and expand it into parts of Swansboro and Blackwell. Over the last few days I have seen some significant pushing back from neighbors in those communities about the re-naming of the neighborhood without consultation. If you want to follow along, Leaders of The New South* has a series of Facebook posts that provide some historical context, official maps, and a platform for community voice. This is a great example of needing to include the community in any major change. I would expect more community unrest and pushback the longer they are excluded. If the developers involved in this project want to practice community engagement, they need to take a deep breath and listen. 

What Can We Learn

As we have read above, names matter. Community engagement, when done well looks more like listening than planning. Great community engagement leads to vibrant change and supportive communities - it involves everyone being heard and deciding their fate as a group. We are happy to help you think through best steps as you navigate change. 


* Leaders of the New South - Community Council for Housing describes themselves as: The Community Council on Housing leads the demand for the implementation and enforcement of fair housing policy for renters in disenfranchised communities.

Feedback as a Vital Tool in Innovation and Planning

design thinking nonprofit consulting social change

We are in the middle of several feedback loops for change management and strategic planning projects. For some clients, this is an important part of their core values. For others, it is an essential tool in building consensus. Regardless, amazing things happen when you ask for people's opinions.

1. Consensus: You are able to slowly build consensus - especially if you practice iterative feedback loops seeking tweaks and input throughout the process.
2. Clarity: People highlight places where you lack clarity. You are often so close to the plan you are unable to see where you have lost the intention of your words. 
3. Dream: Your ideas might spark amazing dreams from your stakeholders that you hadn't even considered!

Feedback loops are an essential part of a planning process that is rooted in good community engagement practices, a ground up approach to engage clients and customers in the design of your vision or product. Whether you gather feedback via a website, in person meetings, or focus groups - the key is to ask and be very open to feedback. You will be better off for it. 

Trying on Another Pair of Shoes: Empathy Building in Strategic Planning

empathy design thinking for social good

Have you ever been in a meeting where one conversation completely changed the feel of the room? Almost as if you could physically feel the change? I had one of those experiences the other day - and it was pretty amazing.  

This particular shift had to do with changing shoes. (No, not real shoes - that would be gross.) We asked retreat participants to spend a few minutes considering what it would be like to be in their clients’ shoes.  

Prior to this exercise all conversation had lived in what I would call the idea realm. Now don’t get me wrong, I love ideas and learning about new concepts. What I love more though, is when ideas move from the realm of theory and become tangible. Like in that room the other day, as we asked our clients to do their best to step outside of their experience and into the experiences of the people with whom they work. 

As each group reported on their conversations, the whole feel of the room shifted. It was palpable. The depth and the quality of the work we were doing shifted too. We were no longer simply capturing ideas to put on paper; we were employing empathy as a tool to help change lives. All because we “changed shoes.” 

Where might "changing shoes" with someone change the tone of a conversation, meeting, or project for you? Click here to read more about the idea of empathy and see some tangible ways to make it part of your process or organization.


What about #METOO? 3 Things You Can Do Now


Last week a board member of a national nonprofit called me and asked if I had a #METOO guide for organizations in the wake of a national movement towards women feeling more comfortable coming forward about hostile workplaces. My immediate gut reaction, "No and I won't." She was thrown by my resistance to comment. 

Why Not Have A Guide?

Basically, I am not a lawyer and sexual harassment claims and issues are legal problems with implications well beyond my training and expertise. We did talk for another half an hour.  I gave her some advice on what to do in light of their Board President having submitted his resignation as news was breaking that he had a long history of sexual harassment. In this case, the issue was separate from the organization (i.e. harassment claims were from people external the nonprofit) and the organization was taking swift action to accelerate a succession plan to bring the Vice-Chair into Chair immediately. In effect, they were handling it just fine. I suggested they have a prepared statement should the organization get connected to the allegations and also that they set aside time at their next board meeting to review organizational culture. 

So Why Write Now?

Yesterday, the CEO of The Human Society of the United States, resigned in the wake of his own #MeToo allegations. The day before, the Board of Trustees voted 17-9 to keep him in place. But, the Washington Post's article this morning contains some alarming statements from board members and employees including this from state director Josh Skipworth, 

“The organization’s revenue has gone up significantly since he’s been CEO. It’s viewed as a positive shift since he became CEO,” Skipworth said. “But it’s ridiculous to put the business outlook over the female employees,” he said.

On its face, this statement comes to a fundamental conclusion, however,  it was necessitated as a reaction to the views of the 17 that voted to keep him...he was doing a good job, so he should stay. 

The disclaimer: I wasn't on the call. I have no knowledge of the intricacies of the decision or the legal facts. But, I know that a decision by the board that results in major donors turning away and 7 board member resignations is likely problematic for an organization in the long term. 

What should you do if you have this problem?

1. Consult a lawyer. Sexual Harassment in the workplace is illegal and you need immediate and qualified legal advice. Seek the advice and listen to the advice.

2. Preserve the organization, as a board member your utmost responsibility is a Duty of Care - you are most beholden to the organization's future and the mission, not to an individual. 

3. Once ready, make a swift and clear statement to assure your donors and volunteers that the organization is taking the matter seriously and has taken appropriate actions.

4. Rebuild your internal culture. Examine your policies and procedures, engage your employees, and take corrective actions to ensure the continuance of your mission. 

What should you do right now before you have a problem?

1. Examine your internal culture and review your policies and procedures. Have them looked at by a lawyer to ensure your employees are protected. 

2. Conduct a staff climate survey to better understand the workplace atmosphere and bring to light any issues that you don't know about. This should be constructed and organized by an external third party to ensure anonymity. 

3. Conduct board training on the major duties and responsibilities of boards. 

Whether you are a nonprofit or a private business, it doesn't matter. Prepare now legally and culturally. 

The Book Shelf: The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design

 The Field guide to Human-Centered Design, by

The Field guide to Human-Centered Design, by

If you regularly read our newsletter you are familiar with our special section we lovingly refer to as "The Book Shelf."  Its origin story was a happy accident stemming from our own strategic planning session in 2017.   We discovered we were all voracious readers, but our book choices could not have been more different.  I personally have a Fiction then Nonfiction flow to my reading. 

The Why

To be in our line of work we have to be adaptive and regularly evaluate our tactics and tools. We promise not to use boilerplates, so we must constantly review new materials and new thoughts. We've been exploring design thinking and its application to strategic planning and change management. At its core, strategic planning done well is 100% in line with design thinking methodology. put this out as a guide to trying out human-centered design. Their web presence is amazing and you can download the guide for free. Thinking it would be a resource for all of our staff, I went ahead and grabbed the real-paper-smells-delicious version.

Top 3 Things I Learned

1. It's a gorgeous and quick read that is thoughtfully designed (always a big bonus)
2. Includes a few really awesome exercises that we look forward to trying out
3. Most important was a real heavy section on empathy work in order to design within a community 


As we delve deeper into authentic community engagement work with our clients we are often faced with decisions on depth and scope of engagement. This book provides a great resource to share that articulates the goal and purpose of human-centered design and co-designing within a community being impacted. 

Racial Equity and the Health and Wellness of Your Company or Organization

What not to do to tackle racial equity in your workplace or organization..png

Richmond is full of robust and amazing reports these days like the United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg 2017 indicator report , the Richmond Memorial Health Foundation Equity and Health Fellows report  and Richmond Magazine's Navigating Richmond's Nonprofit Article

The pervasive theme in all three was racial equity and its place in our city. These are dense and important reads that your business or your nonprofit need to take to heart. In the last two weeks we have called the question with clients - "Look around your table - are all of the people making decisions on behalf of others representative of the community?" This is an uncomfortable question with complicated, hard, and often expensive solutions. 

Here's a List of What Not To Do

1. Don't put "Diversify your Board" in your strategic plan without a real and detailed plan of how you intend to accomplish it. Saying it isn't enough.

2. Don't let unconscious bias slip by in meetings. Call out all forms of racism - intended or otherwise. 

3. Don't think that a focus group or community meeting really cuts it. You need to do true community engagement featuring shared leadership and group processing. Don't just study a community, involve them. 

We are spending time as a staff, (currently an all white staff) to think deeply about this as we expand our team of contractors and employees. But awareness is only half the battle, action steps are required.

A tip for your first step, discuss the difference between equality and equity with your staff or board and make sure everyone is on the same page.