Have you ever been in a conversation with someone with an organization, and they say, “We have a new strategic plan?” As a newcomer to the philanthropic space, I have heard this statement more often than I expected.

In my former life, I worked with a higher education marketing firm. From the University of Miami to Agnes Scott College to Fairfield University and anyone in between, this organization was the go-to group for all things marketing and engagement for colleges and universities across the country. The work I spearheaded was an in-depth study of 100+ higher education strategic plans. The research looked at how and why organizations create strategic plans, and the findings were certainly not ones that were expected. What was found was that, at times, strategic plans are used as an excuse not to pursue innovation or deep community impact.

“Well, that initiative is not a part of our strategic plan.”

“We are only pursuing our strategic initiatives.”

Typically, these are admirable pursuits. But what if the prescriptive nature of strategic plans is detrimental to our organizational and community health? What if, by the time we finished creating our strategic plan, the community’s needs shifted? Now we are left with antiquated strategic goals and imperatives. What if the strategy in our organizations could play out in a less prescriptive way and be centered more on discernment?

The Patterson Foundation (TPF) recently hosted Rich Harwood, founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. Rich spent two days at three events in the Suncoast region of Florida, speaking with community members and offering insights and advice on ways we can move our community forward. Rich also spent time investing in each TPF Fellow by meeting individually with us as we continue to learn how to move the needle as aspiring philanthropic leaders.

Rich mentioned the need for philanthropic leaders to become people who use strategy centered on discernment rather than prescription. Discernment allows us the opportunity for growth, the chance to see new issues emerge, and a way to impact our community as our neighbors continue to inform us of new challenges. Rich spoke to the idea of using strategy road maps rather than plans. Think of your phone’s GPS while using maps today versus previous times when one had to print off a MapQuest step-by-step plan. With a step-by-step plan, if problems emerge, you might be hard-pressed to find new solutions. A wreck, construction, or bottlenecked traffic might ruin your trip. Now your phone, which is tremendous at discerning exactly where you are and precisely what is happening, does an amazing thing: Recalculating. When challenges or roadblocks (literarily) crop up, we can recalculate and find new solutions.

Obviously, this is not the world’s most perfect example (most of our recalculating abilities are due to remarkable technological advances). However, the principle is the same. If our organizations were tremendous recalculators, what would our communities look like? If organizations discern upcoming roadblocks and learn detours through open communication and interactions with our community, we could scale our impact. This is not a ploy to throw the word strategy out the window. Quite the opposite. Being people of discernment takes an insane amount of strategy. We must do our research, know who the voices in the community are, know what plan A is, and also understand plans B-Z.

May we strive to discern rather than prescribe, and may our discernment help lead our organizations, communities, and world to new heights.

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