Ingredients of a successful strategic visioning retreat

What follows is an interview Associate Dan Hess (JDH) conducted with former AAI Principal Jerry Kennell following a visioning retreat held at Philadelphia Mennonite High School (PMHS).

JDH: Let’s begin at the beginning. What is strategic visioning, Jerry?

Kennell: Farmers don’t plow anymore, but when they did, they made straight furrows by picking a fence post or some other fixed mark on the horizon and locking their sight directly on this mark. Strategic visioning is a process to name the fence posts on the horizon for an organization, the key landmarks that will focus all organizational efforts to accomplish mission over a substantial stretch of time. Good planning is rooted firmly in the right strategic vision.

JDH: So you wanted Philadelphia Mennonite High School to have markers that focus its efforts. Who chooses the markers, or, if you prefer, the fence posts?

Kennell: Certainly institutional leadership such as [PMHS Principal] Dr. Barbara Moses plays a key visionary role. But a healthy nonprofit organization is first and last the expression of the heart and will of a community of committed stakeholders. These stakeholders need to be involved in identifying and affirming organizational vision.

JDH: Give examples of stakeholders.

Kennell: A typical list of stakeholders might include:

  • Governing board
  • Administrative and support staff
  • Current and potential clients for service
  • Community representatives
  • Donors
  • Organizations providing complementary services
  • Indirect beneficiaries of services provided
  • A founding and sustaining faith community

When stakeholders are many and scattered, it may be most practical to do initial visioning with a relatively small group and then test the emerging vision in a planned series of remote gatherings.

JDH: Who are the stakeholders of Philadelphia Mennonite High School?

Kennell: Good question. One reason this retreat was so successful is that a truly representative group of about 60 stakeholders participated. These included:

  • Administrators, teachers and clerical staff
  • Students and parents
  • Donors
  • Educational experts
  • The president of a partnering university
  • Lay and professional church leaders

It was an incredible experience for this whole family to gather in the same room, mix around tables together and share the common bond of their love, hopes and concerns for their wonderful school.

JDH: Setting the fence posts is a process, you say.

Kennell: Yes, stated most simply, strategic vision occurs at the intersection of organizational mission (a fairly constant statement of purpose) and the needs in the service environment (a dynamic and evolving set of circumstances). In the retreat, I use a group process to answer a series of visioning questions: “In light of our mission and the needs in our service environment:

  • whom are we compelled to serve?”
  • how should we serve them (the program question)?”
  • what organizational capacity must we create to achieve this service?”

JDH: How is this process accomplished?

Kennell: The actual visioning process takes place in a retreat setting and is built on a combination of small group reflection and synthesis followed by large group non-verbal prioritization. The non-verbal aspect of the large group process assures that no single voice or set of voices dominates or hinders the emerging voice of the whole. For faith-based groups, this is accomplished in a context of worship and a confident sense of the guidance of God’s Spirit throughout.

JDH: Most good carpentry projects require quite a lot of “make-ready,” which seems to the neophyte a waste of time but the professional carpenter knows how essential it is. What are the essential preparations for a strategic visioning retreat?

Kennell: A good process generally takes about six months of preparation. In addition to all the details of organizing a retreat and inviting the guests, there is critical groundwork required in the environmental assessment. The organization needs to study the current and emerging needs in its external service environment, as well as assess internal strengths and weaknesses. This assessment will likely involve a combination of things like:

  • Interviews with community leaders
  • Focus groups
  • Formal market research
  • SWOT analysis of organizational capacity
  • Peer review processes
  • Survey of relevant literature and research

Obviously these things take time. But a relevant vision must be grounded in thorough and accurate assessment of the needs of clients and the capacity of the organization to meet those needs.

JDH: Do you follow a somewhat uniform outline for strategic visioning retreats?

Kennell: Yes. I like to have an evening gathering, starting with dinner together, in which people who led the assessment process personally present their findings. This creates the field, the fertile soil for the creative process that will follow on the next day. In fact, here’s the basic flow for a typical retreat:

Friday evening:

  • Dinner
  • Introductions and review of weekend goals and activity
  • Opening worship (for faith-based groups)
  • Presentation of findings of the environmental assessment
  • Questions of clarification
  • Cookies and milk (just kidding, but if I can have it my way . . .!)

Saturday

  • A really good breakfast
  • Worship (faith-based groups)
  • An activity to ground us in, or really, to let us fall in love again with the wonderful mission of the organization
  • Small group/large group processes to answer the visioning questions:
    • In light of our mission and the current and foreseeable needs in our service environment, whom shall we serve?
    • In light of our mission and the needs of those we have chosen to serve, how shall we serve them?
    • In light of our mission and the service we have chosen to deliver, what institutional capacity must we create?

Lunch usually falls between the second and third rounds of the questioning process. Again, for faith-based groups, we’ll conclude the afternoon with a celebrative/dedicatory period of worship. The incredible thing that happens is the formation of a true and unified voice of this organizational family. There is definitely a collective sense of “Yes” with the emergence and prioritization of the compelling points of vision that we’ve put on the wall at the end of each questioning session. People leave with excitement, satisfaction, inspiration and renewed ownership and commitment to the organization. Whew!

JDH: So how do you help to set the tone and spirit of a workshop?

Kennell: You know, I don’t – at least not by myself. The most important thing I do to be a useful leader is to ground myself in reflective prayer and confidence that the true needs of the organization and the participants will be met in our work together. From there, it’s a matter of staying tuned to what’s happening in the group and welcoming the ride as it unfolds. In Philadelphia, for instance, several wonderful things happened. One, the retreat team planned an excellent cycle of worship to couch the retreat securely in the arms of God. Rev. Leonard Dow, for instance, set the stage on Friday evening when he stated that God wanted a Mennonite high school in Philadelphia. “May we be known as a high school and community of believers, that we are friends of God.” It doesn’t get any better than that.

And then I was inspired to follow up on something I read about in the environmental assessment — a lack of hot water at the school. Apparently when the building was constructed a decision was made not to plumb in hot water to the restrooms. The cost to correct this problem was $5,200. On my first trip to the podium, after I was introduced, I looked around the room and I just knew this could be solved. The very first words this group heard from me were not “Thank You”, “Good evening” or “Aw shucks, what a nice introduction.” I just paused, looked around the room and then said, “So what’s up with the hot water? (blank stares back at me) I mean, I read there is no hot water in the restrooms at the school. Can’t we just check that one off the list? Who’s got a hat we can pass?” I just knew they could do it.

JDH: I heard about this. One person said that when the “hat” came around the first time, he emptied his pocket of change. When it came around the second time, he wrote a check. And prior to the third time, he phoned his wife and then wrote a much bigger check. The money was raised!

Kennell: It was truly amazing. We passed the hat once on Friday evening, once Saturday morning and once after lunch. We got almost exactly one-third of what was needed each time. People rallied together. It was a real “loaves and fishes” experience. The success the group felt in those collections just underscored their sense that they can work together and take this school where it needs to go. That was not in any plan of mine for the weekend.

JDH: I note in the report that Barbara Moses concluded the Friday evening session with a speech. What did that presentation contribute to the workshop?

Kennell: Dr. Moses is an amazing person, and the speech was a rallying point for the whole session. She said, “I’m grateful to God because I have staff that believes God, a faculty that believes God, a Board that believes God, and friends who believe God, and in this ministry we believe God.” She then proceeded to tell the stories of people who have connected, in faith, to Philadelphia Mennonite High School – teachers, donors, contractors, staff. It was a wonderful way to highlight the school’s mission.

JDH: One of those stories was repeated in Germantown, about a development director?

Kennell: Randy’s story is worth telling. Here’s how Dr. Moses told it: “Randy worked for a large pharmaceutical company. He was on his way to a conference up Route 309. God told him to call PMHS. He ignored it. God for the second time told him. He said, I don’t know the number. The Lord told him a third time. He got off the highway, got our number, called our office and asked, ‘Do you have an opening for development director?’ There are witnesses here who know a check had come in that day for to pay for a development director. Denys and I were at lunch and had just finished praying for a development director, when the phone rang.”

JDH: Apparently the retreat was successful. The Monday following your workshop I read this note from Dr. Barbara Moses:

Jerry,

If I could make my words gold, you would be dripping in them. Your blessed leadership and wonderful spirit truly produced an amazing weekend. Not only did you lead us through the strategic planning process but also took care of the “hot water” issue. May the Lord God, Himself, return your kindness over and over again! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! Blessings and Christ’s Love always, Barbara Moses

Kennell: Well, that kind of response is certainly reassuring. The truth is, it can be applied to Barbara, to everyone who participated and to the whole outcome of the retreat. This was truly a Spirit guided gathering and it will be exciting to watch what unfolds for Philadelphia Mennonite High School over the next few years.

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