Ya’axché’s Experience of Strategic and Operational Planning
Ya’axché is a local Belizean organisation that works to maintain healthy forests, rivers and reefs in the Maya Golden Landscape. The organisation’s core challenges include financial sustainability and linking its monitoring activities to overall program effectiveness. Ya’axché conducted a participatory strategic planning process resulting in a simple but comprehensive strategic plan. The strategic plan was used as a basis to develop and implement a clear and fully budgeted operational plan for the year ahead, a monitoring plan, and a fundraising strategy.
Ya’axché is a Belizean organisation which aims to maintain healthy forests, rivers and reefs for the benefit of all. Ya’axché does this through protected area management, advocacy, and working with communities to develop capacity for the wise use of land and natural resources in and around the Maya Golden Landscape in Toledo, Belize.
Ya’axché’s Strategic Plan 2009-2011 was coming to an end. We wanted to review and renew the existing strategic plan, but also make it clearer and more accessible to all staff. The main issue with the former strategic plan was its format, where objectives and activities were listed separately under each of Ya’axché’s program areas. Instead, we wanted to define the overall goals and objectives for the organization and plan how our two programmes of work – Community Outreach and Livelihoods (COL) and Protected Areas Management (PAM) – fit together and each contribute to those goals. Another challenge of the former strategic plan was the language used; it was not always clear and was not very accessible for all staff.
Since the strategic plan was not “user-friendly”, we faced a number of challenges. First of all, we did not develop an operational plan for 2011, which significantly curbed the focus of and proper prioritizing in our work. Furthermore, we noted that while our biodiversity monitoring program was at a rise (due to having clear objectives and targets in our protected areas management plans), our socio-economic monitoring in the communities lagged. We were collecting volumes of information about the communities and people affected by our work, but because we did not have clearly defined strategic objectives and strategic actions, it was difficult to select the most relevant data and to monitor our progress. We also found it difficult to link fundraising efforts to the strategic direction of the organization.
What you did
To complete our Strategic Plan for 2012-2014, we received technical support from Fauna & Flora International. A member of FFI staff facilitated the entire strategic planning process and acted as a non-biased third party, which allowed her to assist Ya’axché’s team to focus the direction of discussions and to synthesize comments and feedback. The strategic planning began with a full-day workshop on identifying Ya’axché’s vision and mission through exercises (such as visualizing and drawing) and discussions. Ya’axché’s entire staff, including full-time employees and current volunteers, participated in the activities of the first day and everybody had a chance to provide their input and learn about the importance of having a mission, vision, and strategic plan. The following two days were spent synthesising the feedback from Day 1 and developing and deciding upon major issues that Ya’axché will target, as well as goals, strategic objectives, and strategic actions. Only core staff participated in these latter discussions. On the final day, the core team presented the results back to the entire staff and Board.
To put the strategic plan into active use, we developed an Operational Plan for 2012, which reflects our strategic actions. The Operational Planning process was conducted in-house and is expected to be repeated on an annual basis. Separate sessions were conducted with managers and coordinators of our two programme areas – ‘Community Outreach and Livelihoods’ and ‘Protected Areas Management’. In each session (facilitated by our Operations Manager) the PAM or COL team reviewed each strategic action and outlined how the respective program will contribute to the strategic actions through activities during 2012. Each team also placed the activities on a timeline (detailed by month) and assigned a responsible individual for each. In addition, the teams discussed which indicators should be used for monitoring each of the activities and strategic actions. A brief planning session was conducted with the core staff (Executive Director and Finance Manager) to outline the activities related to financial sustainability objective. After conducting the sessions, the Operations Manager consolidated all information into a single document using colour-codes to show which teams are responsible for which strategic actions and activities. Many of the strategic actions had a double colour, which demonstrates that both teams contribute to a single strategic action.
In order to address the issue of financial sustainability, defined in the strategic plan, the development team created a Fundraising Strategy for 2012-2014 to guide its development and fundraising efforts. The strategy outlines Ya’axché’s current financial situation, including situational and partner analysis, and describes the development aims/strategies for the following three years.
Strategic Plan – A single short strategic plan has clarified the direction of our work. Due to its length, the strategic plan is really easy to use and helps us to prioritize actions and make decisions. Also, the strategic objectives and strategic actions can be used for fundraising, especially as they are clearly defined and agreed-upon.
Operational Plan – The operational plan has been a great tool for Program Managers to schedule their monthly activities and to monitor progress of their work plans. Additionally, it has created an effective system to report on programs to the Executive Director – at the last weekly management meeting of each month, the Program Managers present the progress and challenges in their programs pertaining to achieving the Operational Plan.
Fundraising Strategy – The Fundraising Strategy provides a guiding direction to the development team and coordination between the development team and the finance/accounting department in order to match fundraising targets to actual expenditures of the programs. In addition to providing fundraising guidance, the document can also be used as a fundraising tool in itself. Moreover, it is an excellent pass-over document for new development officers.
- A Strategic Plan should be as concise as possible and it should focus on the overall mission of the organization. Defining the specifics of each program area should be left for the Operational Plan and not for the Strategic Plan.
- It is important to involve everybody in the organization in the initial stages of strategic planning; however, it is also important to limit the discussion later in the process only to core staff.
- It is an advantage to have someone from outside of the organization to facilitate the strategic planning process so that the facilitator has a third-party non-biased view. Facilitation of the operational planning, however, can be done in-house and facilitated either by the Executive Director or the Operations Manager.
- Facilitator(s) of both the strategic planning process and operational planning process should prepare well for the sessions and take on the extra responsibility of consolidating the information from discussions afterwards – shorter and focused group discussions will bring better results.
- An Operational Plan should not sit on a shelf! It should be the main point of reference for the organization’s managers.
- A Fundraising Strategy should also be put into operation by producing a time-bound plan for each of the strategies.