Strategic Planning

Lessons for Leaders on Strategic Planning, from a Quitter

lessons for leaders in strategic planning quitting

Most of the best decisions in my life were the result of quitting. I’m a big believer in quitting. I’ve always been someone who makes decisions instinctively. I don’t spend a lot of time going back and forth. This isn’t always a good thing, but I believe it’s enabled me to be a team member and leader who can move things forward quickly and not muck up the process. Sometimes my great ideas don’t end up being all that great or I’ve hit my capacity and I need to reconfigure my workload, and I find myself in a position where I need to be a quitter.

One of our facilitation activities for retreats is called “Start, Stop, Keep, Need,” where we ask small groups to map out what additional resources they may need and what they will need to start, stop, and keep doing to make their big and exciting dreams come true. Without fail, every group struggles to fill in the “stop” quadrant on their flip chart paper. So much so, I’ve started asking groups to fill out “stop” first and still most struggle. While I know capacity is an issue for most everyone we work with (who can really say they have enough time to do everything?) I don’t actually believe everything we do is necessary to continue to reach our overall goals. Many times I end up giving groups “permission” to stop doing things that haven’t been working for a long time, or take up more time than they are worth.

Let’s be honest - we can only do so much.  We owe it to ourselves, and the people we work with and for, to make sure what we are doing is the very best use of our time and resources. Typically that requires quitting things that no longer check that box. To be effective, we have to work toward being savvy at pivoting and changing things up.

I encourage you to look at how you are doing your work, and think to yourself, “what could I stop doing?” Maybe you don’t actually need to have 3-4 hour board meetings (trust me, you don’t) or perhaps that really awesome program you mapped out on paper just isn’t as successful in real life, or maybe you really need to quit grad school (just me? Oh, okay). Quitting can give you space to try new things, which is vital to staying relevant and growing, it can also carve out enough space to breathe and dive deeper into the areas that matter most.  

One of the things that sets The Spark Mill apart from other strategic planning and organizational development firms is that we don’t add more without working closely with you to flesh out your overall capacity.  If plans are too vague or lofty or impossible they are ineffective and you will just file them away on a shelf or in a drawer.  They should be a guide and a roadmap to how your organization can effectively and efficiently accomplish the necessary work that will enable you to have the biggest impact. Contact us if you would like help in figuring out what you should start, stop, and keep; and what else you might need to do your very best work.




The Aftermath of Strategic Planning: Pitfall Lessons for Those In Charge of Implementation

strategic planning implementation

Recently, I wrote about my confidence in our clients and their work.   Now, just because I'm confident in them doesn’t mean they’ll actually implement their plans. Here are two pitfalls that can easily derail implementing a strategic plan. I’ve seen both of them at work in several organizations – some I have worked with, and some (in full transparency) where I have been in leadership:


First, it’s so easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day work that we forget about the bigger picture.  Perhaps you have heard the story about the two stonemasons who are working together on a stone wall for a sanctuary.  One brick mason, as he shapes the stone grumbles and complains. When asked what he does, says, “I’m chipping away at stone.”  The other mason has a relatively upbeat outlook and when asked what he is doing, he says, “I’m building a space where people will encounter the divine.”  Both of their responses were accurate, only one saw his work in terms of the bigger picture.  If we aren’t regularly checking and organizing our daily work against our goals and strategies, we can easily lose sight of the big picture.


Second, in the midst of getting bogged down in the day-to-day, organizations become inward focused, putting internal needs in front of their mission and losing sight of why (and for whom) they exist.  They begin to design processes that make life easier for them and not for their clients. This isn’t just an organizational challenge – it’s a human challenge, too.  And guess what, our organizations are full of humans!

Here’s the thing - both of these pitfalls are SO easy to fall into.  The best way to avoid them is to build regular reminders of why you exist and whom you exist to serve into your regular work, board meetings, and staff meetings. 

If we are not intentional it is easy for us to merely push rocks. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to merely work with stone.  I want to be involved in building beautiful things.  

How about you, what pitfalls have you encountered in implementing strategic plans?


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.

Being Black in White Spaces: Lessons for Nonprofit and Government Leaders

Breaking Down Racial Barriers: The Importance of Embracing Stories and Sharing Ownership in Predominantly White Spaces: 

The Second in a Series on Belonging

I was born in Harlem, NY and raised by a single mother in a working class household. We didn’t have a whole lot, but my mother loved my brother and me dearly and never hesitated to stress the importance of getting a good education - she saw this as a way to access more opportunities. She was right. My passion for learning and my mother’s relentless search for educational opportunities throughout NYC opened my world up in unimaginable ways, including allowing me to traverse class boundaries I don’t know I would’ve had the opportunity to do otherwise. At age 11, I was admitted into a top private school in New York for gifted, low income students of color. At age 14, I began high school at a Quaker boarding school in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I can honestly say these were some of the best years of my life (although by senior year I didn’t think so – courtesy teenage growing pains). I met my lifelong girlfriends and the school’s Quaker values helped to cultivate my passion for social justice issues.

After graduating from the Westtown, I was awarded a full academic scholarship to the University of Richmond, one of the top liberal arts institutions in the country. Admittedly, I struggled at UR my first year. Academically I was fine, but socially, I had a hard time adjusting. It wasn’t just the fact that UR was a predominantly white institution; the class differences amongst my peers and me were palpable. They appeared to have few worries, while I was constantly burdened with having to balance schoolwork and on-campus jobs so I didn’t have to ask my mother for spending money. So, there I was, a black 18-year-old girl from inner city New York having to manage how to exist in this overwhelmingly wealthy and extremely white space.  

Was I the only black person in the room? The only woman, the only black woman? How do I look? Look people in the eyes, act like you belong here. Be 10x better, and even if you don’t know something, act like you do.

The reality is, for most of my life, I have existed in white spaces. At school, at work, and in some social settings depending on where I choose to go. These experiences have been met with a great amount of racial anxiety, which I learned is actually a thing thanks to TMI’s Unconscious Bias Training. When I walked into rooms, I’d scan them and my mind would implode with a series of concerns. Was I the only black person in the room? The only woman, the only black woman? How do I look? Look people in the eyes, act like you belong here. Be 10x better, and even if you don’t know something, act like you do. These are just to name a few, the point being, I was constantly in my head, as I know many black people are in these types of spaces.

As I have gotten older, with more confidence, spending more time reflecting on who I am and embracing this era of Black Girl Magic, the racial anxiety has lessened tremendously, but I’d be lying if I said it has gone away completely. When I think about the types of workplace environments that have allowed me to feel more comfortable, they have been those where coworkers, especially my white ones, acknowledge and are willing to engage in conversations about their privilege.  Where they are aware of the experiences I can potentially face when I walk outside of the office even if they attempt to offer a safe space at work.

It was no surprise that I am the only person of color at The Spark Mill.  When I first joined the team part time, I was clearly aware of this fact, but quite frankly used to it.  When I first sat down to speak with Sarah, the firm’s founder, she was as aware of the team’s lack of racial diversity as I was.  We talked about the need to build a team that was more reflective of our clients as well as the clients they serve. I was intrigued, not because I was willing to accept being a token, but because our conversation felt genuine. She was interested in getting to know me not simply as the black woman she wanted to bring on her team, but as Mariah, the masters in urban and regional planning student, University of Richmond graduate with a passion for black people, cities, and urban planning.

The reality is nonprofit and government organizations have a tremendous issue with diversity, including those whose core clients are in fact people of color.

In 2012, CommonGood Careers published a study called the Voice of Non-Profit Talent. This report revealed that while many nonprofit leaders express a commitment to diversity within their organizations, few organizations actually do enough to attract and retain people of color. And when they do, people of color are often tokenized and forced day in and day out to deal with the micro aggressions that are symptoms of larger systemic issues of race. The reality is also that nonprofits and government agencies are not the only ones who suffer from this problem and that many black people like myself have managed to cope with working in predominantly white spaces.

Giving Equal Power to People of Color

In the meantime, where a system may be slower to change, there are ways for organizations to help decrease the racial anxieties experienced on a daily basis while also working towards organizational change that gives equal power to people of color.

  • Recognize that a person of color’s job is not simply to be the person of color in the room. We have a voice, lived experiences, and most importantly, the hard skills necessary to advance and lead work within organizations.
  • Understand that for people of color working within organizations serving vulnerable populations of color, this work is extremely personal, and on a regular basis we are forced to balance a professional and personal lens. Double consciousness is real and sometimes extremely difficult to manage. However, when people of color are accepted for being themselves, when we feel as though who we are is embraced, and when our personal stories and voices coupled with professional expertise are trusted and welcomed throughout an organization, walls begin to be broken down. Breaking down these barriers may look different depending on your organization.

3 Questions to Ask to Help Break Down the Walls: 

  • How might you be more intentional about understanding the personal stories of your employees of color?
  • How might you work to better understand their experience being in a space built, owned, and operated by individuals who do not look like them?
  • How might you think about your approach to making them feel a part of your organization by sharing ownership of the spaces you both occupy?

All of these ideas are rooted in a 21st century view of community engagement. As a firm we have been reminding, nudging, and cajoling clients to think differently about belonging. To own their bias in the historical development of the programs and to commit to doing it differently going forward. 

Overwhelmed? We can help. 


Creating a Strategic Planning Process that Creates the Confidence of a Tightrope Walker

Why we trust our clients to go out into the world boldly

Have you ever heard of Harry Colcord?  Yeah, me either...until I was doing some reading about tightrope walker and funambulist (say that five times fast) Charles Blondin.  Colcord was Blondin’s manager.  He trusted Blondin so much that he rode piggyback on Blondin’s back across Niagara Falls…willingly…on a tightrope.  Colcord trusted Blondin with his life – literally!  He had great confidence in Blondin and his abilities. 

That’s the kind of confidence I have in our clients after spending months getting to know them and their work.  I fully believe they can achieve what they are setting out to do.  Why?

3 Reasons I Believe in Our Strategic Planning Clients

1. It’s their plan!  We don’t write a plan for them - we help guide them as they write their plan.  They know their clients, their staff, and their leadership best.  We get to help them collect and digest all the data and then use that data to craft a plan that can guide them through the next three to five years.  Sometimes that means pushing or challenging clients to do hard things, hear difficult feedback, and make complicated decisions.  Because of that, if the plan is not their plan, in their voice, when it gets difficult they won’t believe in it or champion it. 

2. It’s outward focused!  A strategic plan that doesn’t look beyond an organization’s walls is an operational plan.  Strategic planning is about missional alignment and achievement.  Maybe that is the change they want to see in the world, in their line of business, or in the academic landscape.   We push our clients to make sure they are focusing outside their walls to achieve their mission. Which leads to the third reason...

3. It includes THEIR client's voice!  Flourishing isn’t something one imposes upon others.  Instead it’s discovered together.  That is why we are so invested in making sure the end user’s voice is a part of the process and we work really hard to make sure our clients are authentically engaging THEIR clients as they look to the future.  Read more about our thoughts on inclusion and community engagement here

When our clients invest in their future, seek input from external stakeholders, and authentically listen to the people they serve; I believe they can achieve whatever it is they set their sights on.  I have so much confidence in them I’d let them carry me across Niagara Falls.


Inclusion Is a Bad Word - It's Time to Throw It Away

Or, why the way most people do inclusive is lazy

Earlier this month I was in Chattanooga at the Startup Champions Network bi-annual summit. On day one of the summit, Paulo Harris, co-chair of the Equity and Inclusion Committee, got up to explain they were changing the name of the committee to shed the word inclusion. He said something along these lines, “Inclusion is the act of being included, but this means someone owns the table and they are granting you access.” These words shook me to my core.

consulting firm richmond virginia inclusion

My first thought was where did this word come from? (Thanks to an amazing English professor in college) Language changes over time – this is why Merriam Webster added 1000 words to the dictionary this year. Understanding the evolution of a word is necessary to uncover some of the bias that trickles through language over time. So, I started with the etymology of the word.

c. 1600, "act of making a part of," from Latin inclusionem (nominative inclusio) "a shutting up, confinement," noun of action from past participle stem of includere (see include). Meaning "that which is included" is from 1839. From Etymology Online

And now today’s definition, from the Oxford Dictionary - the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.

Read those lines with me, “within a group or structure.”

“Here is my table, come sit and let me ask you questions.”

In our work we coach clients in building a process of change and growth that is rooted in the voice of the community. We most often find an appetite for this version of inclusion – “Here is my table, come sit and let me ask you questions.” We are going to be pushing for a more radical view of community engagement that leans into the lens of lived experience and listens more than it talks and gathers feedback in constant loops.

So here’s the thing, I don’t have an answer for a new word – but I am making a commitment to stop using inclusion. It isn’t right and here’s why:

Inclusion is often used as a placeholder for all kinds of minority representation. Inclusion done wrong looks like, see we invited a woman to the table – we are inclusive. Inclusion done wrong looks an awful lot like the tokenism my co-worker Mariah wrote about in her blog a couple of weeks ago. This kind of inclusion results in systemic discrimination and problems.

Thinking back to inclusion in start-up ecosystems, odds are entrepreneur eco-systems around the country are patting themselves on the back for having a handful of women at their tables.  But that gets uneven results for a reason and there is data to back it up. According to Fortune Magazine, Female Founders Got 2% of Venture Capital Dollars in 2017. This isn’t because women don’t launch great businesses. This is because the funding tables and the ecosystem tables and the networking tables are all owned by men.

In Richmond this looks like inviting people of color to participate in focus groups and fill out surveys and thinking that you are being inclusive, or being fine that you have that one black board member. True community engagement that can create moments of respectful and appropriate change and growth doesn't mean this version of inclusivity. 

So what do you do?

  1. Look at your table. Is everyone the same color or gender or from the same town? Or worse, do you have token representatives of each?
  2. Build a new table, collaboratively, with a diverse audience of mentors and end users (clients or customers).

  3. Let the new table draft the agenda and create the questions to be solved for.

  4. Take a deep breath and listen and then restate and then ask for feedback, over and over and over. 

In my work, I am making the commitment to push clients not to give into the temptation to be inclusive and call it a done day and pat themselves on the back. 

What happens when you ask Black women and White women if they feel like they belong in Richmond?

Mapping Belonging and Inclusion in the City of Richmond

 Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license

Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to conduct focus groups with three separate cohorts of women from Richmond. One of our goals during these groups was to identify spaces on a map of the city where they felt a sense of comfort, belonging, inclusion, and safety.

Now, I’ve visited local establishments in Richmond on many occasions, either alone or with friends. While there are never any apparent symbols to suggest that I am unwanted or unwelcomed in these spaces, I often feel a keen sense of displacement; a feeling of emotional detachment from any of the activities taking place in the space around me. More times than not, unless my friends or I intentionally seek out environments where other people of color are the majority, we are among the few black people, if any.

During these focus groups, one of the conversations that emerged was the nuanced difference between being included and belonging, inclusion being where others work to make you a part of a space and belonging being a sense of emotional embeddedness in a space, where you possess shared values with those around you and feel connected to the people and the space itself. 

And it’s worth mentioning that belonging can only be achieved when individuals are not tokenized, are encouraged to lead the process for change and development, and when well-meaning but also privileged people get out of the way to allow this to happen.

The distinction between the two sentiments is important, as are the distinctions between say, tokenism and authentic community engagement. The former suggests that while the community may be invited to attend meetings or public hearings, their voices serve as a mere addition to an existing engagement process. Authentic community engagement, on the other hand, ensures that individuals feel both a sense of inclusion and belonging. And it’s worth mentioning that belonging can only be achieved when individuals are not tokenized, are encouraged to lead the process for change and development, and when well-meaning but also privileged people get out of the way to allow this to happen. Only then, can communities become the true vision of themselves and embrace the values that are important to them.

I say this to say: Community engagement work is not only about creating a sense of belonging, it’s about realizing the power of letting individuals and communities be self sufficient and lift up the things that matter most to them. In my focus group with Black women from the city, they mentioned there were many places where they felt included, but very few where they felt a sense of belonging, and the ones where they did were Black owned and operated.  For them, it was about being welcomed into a space, seeing Black art on the walls, or hearing music that reflected their culture and identity. It was also feeling a sense of community and being surrounding by others who look like them.

As we work with our clients around community engagement, I won’t lie and say these issues are easy to tackle or that there is a one size fits all solution for creating environments where marginalized groups feel a sense of belonging. In fact, there isn’t.  The whole idea of translating the ideas of belonging and inclusion into something tangible can be extremely difficult and only each specific community can figure out how these goals can be achieved in their community. But, I will say that it is worth it for organizations and businesses that have social missions to think creatively about how this can be achieved through:

  1.  relinquishing of traditional power structures
  2.  understanding that belonging can only be achieved when community voices are embedded in every part of the empowerment and change process.  

How can we help you design change that fosters belonging?