Strategic Planning! Words that inspire anticipation and hope—but also anxiety, frustration, and exhaustion. It’s a process that every nonprofit embarks on at some point, and at its best is an indispensable mechanism for mapping the future and aligning resources around carefully thought-through priorities. But at its worst, it consumes time and energy and ties an organization up in knots. Over the years, I have been involved in many planning processes with different organizations. I remember the one that got consumed in data analysis, the one that was never achievable from the day it was published, the one that had promise but never had buy-in, and the overwhelming one with over a hundred strategies designed to keep all voices happy.
Many reading this article will have experienced these kinds of problems—as well as hopefully enjoying effective planning processes that were galvanizing and energizing. But what makes a good strategic planning process? At the highest level, all strategic planning processes should have two over-arching goals: first, develop a road map to guide future decision-making, resource allocation, fundraising, and messaging; and second, align the people of the organization around a statement of common purpose.
These two goals should sit in balance with each other—the execution matters as much as the output. Success can’t be achieved either with the process that develops a clear direction but fails to bring people along for the journey, or with the plan that includes everyone’s voice but does not pinpoint an incisive vision. The famous warning goes: “A camel is a horse designed by a committee”— but to give the camel its due, it is an animal supremely adapted for its desert life! Arts organizations are working in complex environments, and they tend to benefit from committee work that draws on a diverse range of voices. (I would draw your attention to an excellent recent article by our friends at Wolf Brown about equity in planning.)
Our new Strategic Framework has been deliberately conceived as a map rather than a plan, laying out the broad direction but leaving room for maneuver as the field evolves and needs change.
The good news is that the formula for success in strategic planning isn’t rocket science: it’s about designing a process that draws on input from a wide range of voices in the early stages, vests the writing in a small number of key leaders (respecting the power of a unified writing style), and reaches out more widely for review on an iterative basis to test and make improvements. I like the analogy of the flexing concertina: a process that alternates between expansive and more intimate work modes. It’s simple, and it works. And as the plan moves into the writing stage, it’s vital for the ideas to be crisply articulated if they are to be of maximum utility to the organization and land impactfully with the external reader.
At the League
During 2021 and 2022, the League of American Orchestras followed exactly this journey, and the result is our new Strategic Framework, which we publicly launched a week ago.
At the beginning of our process, we observed that the arts in 2023 are in a time of great volatility. What appears true one month seems to change the next, and despite some critical recurring themes, there are few certainties about the future. Our approach respects this by not attempting to describe every single goal and strategy we hope to implement. It has been deliberately conceived as a framework rather than a plan, laying out the broad direction but leaving room for maneuver as the field evolves and needs change. Flexibility is everything; we expect to revisit and revise the Framework annually.
In our research and discussions with the field, some clear themes cut through the noise of the moment: equity, diversity, and inclusion; community; audience; and youth engagement. None of these are new—they have been at the forefront of the League’s work for many years—but there are subtle shifts in how we intend to think about our work in these areas.
In our research and discussions with the field, key themes recurred: equity, diversity and inclusion; community; audience; and youth engagement.
In equity, diversity, and inclusion, the significant change is that rather than simply stressing their importance, we articulate our commitment to speed up progress. Read the demographic field report we will issue next week at americanorchestras.org, and the reason for this new commitment is crystal clear: in recent years, the field has made progress in addressing long-standing inequities and adapting to the changing nature of American society, but the pace won’t get us quickly enough to where we need to be. Our commitment is to help the field move faster—and to weave the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion through everything we do here at the League.
An early insight also informed our articulation of the work around audiences. When it comes to the critical work of welcoming and retaining new audiences, artistic planning, marketing, and community engagement are deeply intertwined. Our commitment is to support a more holistic approach that brings together these interdependent disciplines, as orchestras program creatively to build relationships with communities that are not well represented in our current audience—all the while laying the groundwork for long-term revenue growth.
Most orchestras work with young people, yet—with the exception of youth orchestras—the strategies do not always sit at the center of organizations’ priorities. The pandemic has not helped this, as attention was pulled elsewhere. But it’s hard to imagine any field that can envisage a successful future without deeply investing in young people, listening to their voices, and nurturing their potential. Music impacts young people’s lives in profound ways—and if orchestras build consistent partnerships within local education ecosystems, our field will stand a greater chance of seeing the radically more inclusive “pipeline” into the profession that we need in order for truly diverse stages to be a reality.
In equity, diversity, and inclusion, the significant change is that rather than simply stressing their importance, we articulate our commitment to speed up progress.
Lastly, we observe that the challenge of change is a theme that pervades the entire orchestral field. Unlike for-profit companies with their linear arrow toward financial outcomes, we have complex missions, and our organizations tend to have intricate matrices of priorities and authorities that can make change hard. This is not a criticism of the field—it’s a fact of the field. We hope that by building a new change leadership program as a successor to our Emerging Leaders program, we will help equip the leaders of today and tomorrow to navigate these complexities and align their organizations around big and exciting ideas.
Our Framework also encompasses some internal strategies for us at the League, including advancing our journey to become a “digital first” organization, urgently building a broader base of individual philanthropy to underwrite our work in support of the field, and optimizing a remote staff team that is increasingly based in cities beyond New York. As of the time of writing, we have team members in Detroit, Cleveland, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.—a geographic breadth that can be a new resource for the field.
The League’s new mission: “To champion the vitality of music and the orchestral experience, support the orchestra community, and lead change boldly.” These words matter, and we intend to live by them.
I’ll end with perhaps the most significant change of all, which is our mission statement. Everything flows from mission. But having experienced plans that spent months parsing out a new mission statement word by word before even starting on the real strategic detail, I increasingly doubt that this is a good way to proceed. Granular discussions about strategy often bring new clarity to vision and mission. After intense discussion about the prioritization of our work around equity, diversity, and inclusion, audiences, communities, and young people, we turned back to the mission statement and were struck that the League would need to be more than a support organization to realize the change we envision. So we now embrace more explicitly the notion of leadership, declaring unequivocally that our mission is to “To champion the vitality of music and the orchestral experience, support the orchestra community, and lead change boldly.” These words matter, and we intend to live by them.
The Strategic Framework can be found here. Thank you to all who filled out surveys, provided thought leadership, gave helpful edits, and offered constructive criticism—we could not have done it without you and we count on your continued partnership to bring this new direction to fruition. Onward!