Is strategic planning necessary for faith-based schools?

Jack Peterson
November 3, 2014
Strategic planning didn’t begin in schools.  It finds its roots in the complex industrial organizations arising at the end of the 19th Century.  But while management experts like Henry Mintzberg can make a case that some businesses are successful without formal planning, using strategies that are more reactive than proactive, it’s difficult to imagine any faith-based schools like ours being able to succeed that way.

Our schools are mission-based organizations.  Sure, businesses claim to have a mission, too.  For Google, for instance, it’s “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”  But for most businesses—probably even Google—if the opportunity for a higher return on investment waved a flag in front of them, they’d probably adjust their mission to chase after it.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.”  

But as faith-based schools, we know where we’re going—or supposed to be going.  We have a mission, and this mission isn’t just inspiring words.  It really does define why we exist.  If we fail at our mission, we disappear, as surely as a for-profit business that doesn’t get a return on investment for its shareholders.

That’s why, working with faith-based schools, my definition of strategic planning is: “The process of identifying and aligning all the significant factors within a school’s control in order to more effectively accomplish its mission in the face of environmental factors not within its control.”

While there are a number of circumstances today favorable to the faith-based school, there are also a number which are not.  How the school assures the vitality of the apostolic, pedagogical, community and business dimensions of its work is critical to achieving the mission entrusted to it by the Church and ultimately by Christ, our Lord. Strategic Planning is a tool that can unite these dimensions into a coherent, Spirit-led path to the future. It helps the many people involved in the school’s success to understand the decisions they need to make to support a coherent response to the mission.  A sound strategic planning process can help the school attract quality employees and leaders for governance; it can provide a case for philanthropic support and inspire benefactors; it can assure the best use of the school’s resources; it can help the school deal with adverse factors that arise both outside and within the school; and it preserves continuity during leadership transitions in the life of the school.

The greatest criticism of strategic planning by Mintzberg and others is the failure of strategic plans to be implemented.  Mintzberg cites a survey by Fortune magazine that less than 10% of strategies are successfully implemented. Probably the biggest reason for this is that we tend to focus too much on the plan rather than the process that produces it.  

A plan will fail if it’s goals aren’t truly strategic, but it can also fail if school leadership—at all levels—doesn’t learned to think strategically, that is, to distinguish which choices and paths will lead to better accomplishment of the mission and which will not.

A plan will fail if goals aren’t measurable so everyone on the team is headed toward the same goal line.  But it will also fail if leadership at all levels doesn’t learn how to set meaningful, measurable goals.

A plan will fail if it doesn’t take into account the needs and perspectives of all the school’s stakeholders.  But it will also fail if those stakeholders aren’t involved in the plan from its formulation to its implementation.

For us as mission-based schools, not just any road will do. Nor will it do to have administrators, teachers, boards, school commissions, parents, student and benefactors all pursuing their own paths to the mission.

The challenges are simply too great not to be united in meeting them.

If you want to learn more about how strategic planning can be organized to align your schools energies to better accomplish its mission in the face of the challenges—and opportunities—ahead, a one-page, five-page or 33-page summary can be downloaded under the RESOURCES tab at the top of this web page, or by clicking here.  Or email me at jackpeterson@managingformission.com, and we’ll find a time to talk about your school’s strategic planning challenge.

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