In our series “The Leadership Conversations,” we’ve been exploring topics and issues critical to the health of nonprofits with some of our nation’s top nonprofit leaders. This installment is a conversation with Andrew Bowman, president of the Land Trust Alliance, about the role of strategic planning in today’s nonprofit environment.
The Land Trust Alliance is a national land conservation organization that works to save the places people need and love by strengthening land conservation across America. Based in Washington, D.C., the Alliance leads and serves a community of 1,000 nonprofit land trusts, with 200,000 volunteers and 4.6 million supporters. Land trusts collectively have conserved more than 56 million acres of parks and playgrounds, vital waters and wildlife habitats, family farms and working ranches, and the special places that give us life and connect us to our culture, history and one another.
Before joining the Alliance in February 2016, Andrew served as the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s program director for the environment. In that capacity, he oversaw all environmental grant making for the foundation. During his 11 years at the foundation, Andrew developed and obtained approval of $100 million in grants. He also served for a time there as director of the foundation’s Climate Change Initiative, a five-year grants program focused on climate change mitigation.
Prior to his work at the foundation, Andrew practiced law in Oregon for Defenders of Wildlife and at the law firm Perkins Coie LLP. He remains an active member of the Oregon State Bar.
Cathy Card Sterling (CCS): When you first arrived at the Land Trust Alliance, you inaugurated a strategic planning process. What were the main issues you wanted to address? Why were these issues the most significant to you?
Andrew Bowman (AJB): I assumed my role as president of the Land Trust Alliance in February of 2016. Just a few days before my official start date, the organization celebrated the successful completion of a capital campaign, which was designed to advance the organization’s 2010–2017 strategic plan. Not only was it time to start thinking about our next plan, but selfishly as the new president, I wanted to put my stamp on a new plan. We started laying the groundwork for our new plan in 2016, and the formal work started in early 2017.
We started by evaluating our performance and the impact of our previous plan. It became clear that we were doing many things right—and we will continue doing them. However, we surfaced two critical challenges:
1. The organization had a lot of what I’ll call “deferred maintenance.” I made the decision early on to practice extreme transparency; I acknowledged to our land trust members and our Board of Directors that we had a need to focus on ourselves.
2. Even before I came to the Alliance, I recognized that not enough people know or care about land trusts or private land conservation. I wanted to elevate the relevance of land trusts and their work to a new level.
So our plan ensures we will keep doing the valued, high-impact things we’ve been doing, but layered on top of that is a recognition that we need to focus on our own operations and on making conservation and the work of land trusts relevant to many more people.
CCS: What was the make-up of the working strategic planning group in terms of Board and staff and other stakeholders? What were the advantages of bringing together this combination of people?
AJB: We retained a consultant who encouraged us to set up a strategic planning team with eight staff members and two Board members. We were careful to ensure a mix of different perspectives and skill sets on our planning team, with representation across different departments and with different lengths of tenure at the organization. We also made a point to avoid selecting what I’ll call the usual suspects; we wanted new voices in the mix. The one constant was that they were all smart, thoughtful and eager to engage.
Notably, I was not on the team; I wanted the team members to be able to be open and candid and to feel ownership of the process and the ultimate plan. The energy and enthusiasm for this process was terrific. They didn’t pull their punches, either; they were diligent in surfacing problems and creative in recommending solutions.
CCS: What was the strategic planning process? Who were the key outside stakeholders involved in this process?
AJB: The consultant put in place a three-step process. It started with a discovery phase, which lasted about five months, in which they framed the issues. The firm did a comparative analysis of other similar organizations—both inside and outside of our sector—and benchmarked best practices. Then they conducted stakeholder interviews with Board members, donors, partners, policymakers and land trust members. The firm also prepared a comprehensive analysis of our revenue model and development practices. Finally, they fielded a staff survey and conducted focus groups with staff.
The results of all of this work were shared with the strategic planning team, whose role was to spend two months developing key findings and recommendations. They reaffirmed the Alliance’s mission, vision and values, refined our model for impact, articulated our unique value proposition, revisited our business model and established near-term priorities. Ultimately, they produced a document that included a problem statement, a case for change, a vision, our value proposition and recommendations for organizational priorities.
From there I stepped in, along with other members of my executive management team, to work with the strategy team and the consultant to refine the recommendations and draft the actual plan.
I should note that a key component of the planning process was stakeholder engagement—beyond the initial interviews. From the beginning, we identified points at which we would brief our Board, staff, and the Land Trust Leadership Council—an important group of roughly 50 executive directors from high-impact land trusts from across the nation that represent well the constituency we serve. This was an iterative process.
I should share that at one presentation to the Leadership Council in particular, I made the decision, in spite of some personal misgivings, to be completely candid about our organizational challenges. The response could not have been more gratifying and validating. They welcomed my transparency and even stepped up to offer suggestions for how they could help. It was a watershed moment in the development of the plan itself; their support gave us the courage to be open about the need to focus resources and attention on our own organizational needs. As one stakeholder put it, we needed to put on our own oxygen mask before making sure our seatmate had access to air.
CCS: Was the vision or mission reviewed and changed through this process? If so, how did that affect the goals and outcomes of the plan?
AJB: The strategy team recommended a small but important change to our mission statement. Specifically, we added two words, “need and”: “The mission of the Land Trust Alliance is to save the places people need and love by strengthening land conservation across America.” This reflects our goal to become more relevant. We recognize that while many of those who are already committed to our cause came because of a love of the land, for far too many Americans land and land conservation play little or no role in their lives, at least as far as they are aware. Yet we know that conserved, well-managed land provides pure drinking water, healthy food, clean air and places to reflect and recreate as well as protection from natural disasters, such as floods and drought. It also absorbs and keeps carbon from the Earth’s atmosphere. In other words, regardless of whether you love the land, you need it! (Though we certainly hope to convince more people to love it.)
CCS: What were the big picture outcomes that emerged from this process?
AJB: We carefully laid out the challenges we face as an organization and as a community. Based on that we defined four conservation goals: Relevance, rate, rigor and resilience. Relevance was new to the picture.
We also articulated our strategic approach and value proposition, with a focus on four areas of activity: capacity building, advocacy, collaborative leadership and convening. We laid out a model for how each of these activities impacts land trusts, land conservation and, ultimately, the nation as a whole.
The core of the plan is three priority initiatives: (1) Invest in internal organizational capacity needs to make the Alliance a more vital and sustainable institution; (2) Prioritize and deliver programs and services most important to land trusts; and (3) Design and launch a coalition-based “relevance campaign” to elevate the importance of land conservation in every community.
CCS: What were the internal steps you took to implement the new strategic plan? What were or are the challenges to implementing the new plan?
AJB: It’s always a challenge to move from a high-level strategic document to a tactical plan, and it is essential to involve staff in that process. In fact, I would argue that you would never get the breadth of information and perspective that you need without their input.
The strategic plan was adopted by our Board in February of 2018. We continued to work with the consultant on an implementation plan, but, honestly, as well as they knew us and our work, they did not have the depth of understanding of our day-to-day operations and our expertise—of how we do what we do.
So, the rubber really hit the road this past summer in the context of our 2019 work planning. First, the executive management team developed ten objectives that support the three priority initiatives identified in the plan. I then asked each department to develop strategies to advance those objectives over the life of this plan. Importantly, I urged them to consider their roles in achieving all of the objectives, not just those that were clearly in their wheelhouse. In other words, the relevance campaign is not solely the responsibility of the communications team; we will not be successful in this endeavor if development doesn’t help raise funds for campaign development, if our field staff don’t provide us with stories to support the campaign messages, if our technology team doesn’t prepare for adding new names to our database, etc.
Again, the executive management team consolidated and refined the identified strategies. The resulting list, along with the goals and objectives that make up the implementation plan, will guide our work over the next four years. For example, all 2019 work plans produced by the Alliance’s various departments adhere to those strategies, providing a marriage of the big-picture vision and all of the steps it will take us to get there.
Importantly, that process, which involved every member of our staff, provides staff with ownership of the plan. They can all see their roles in advancing the objectives and, importantly, how we will all need to work together to attain our goals. Every individual and every department is essential to our success.
CCS: Does the new strategic plan impact or change the business model for the Alliance? If so, how?
AJB: Our core work areas of focus do not change, but we are revisiting our revenue model, for example. We have more clarity on how we prioritize our work. One goal is that we get better at saying no—we simply can’t do everything at once or prior to finding additional resources. We are also recognizing a need to be better integrated across teams. And, of course, the relevance campaign is a huge new priority for us.
CCS: How will you evaluate the plan over time?
AJB: The strategic plan identified metrics for each of the priority initiatives, which was an area of focus for the strategic planning team. Moreover, as part of the development of the implementation plan, staff were asked to identify what we should measure to track our progress against our strategies, objectives and priority initiatives. We still have work to do to set baselines for these, but knowing what we want to measure is an important first step.
CCS: How did or will you communicate the plan to members and stakeholders? Is the plan primarily an internal document, or is it being used to help member trusts think about their role in their communities?
AJB: Again, I am committed to transparency. Moreover, because we are a membership organization, what we do has an impact on the land trust community; in some ways, this is a plan for the community.
We had an extensive communications plan in place once the plan was approved. We published the full plan and an executive summary to our website and we made printed versions of the executive summary available to stakeholders as well. We designed a PowerPoint presentation for staff to deliver to stakeholders around the country. We published a story in our magazine about the plan, and we devoted an issue of our monthly e-news to it as well. The great news is that, again, we got terrific feedback. In fact, some of our members have written posts for our blog in support of the plan.
AJB: Core to the Alliance’s work on behalf of our land trusts members—historically and in our new strategic plan—is our federal policy program. As of this writing, we have just learned that Congress has reached agreement on the new Farm Bill, which is a significant source of federal funding for conservation and a priority for our organization. While we do not have all the details, we do know that our priorities will be reflected in the new legislation. This is terrific example of how our community has come together and stepped up under our leadership to advance our interests on Capitol Hill. Our members helped us identify key provisions, flew to D.C. to meet with their representatives, and have already started working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service on rulemaking for the conservation title.
Land conservation is controversial here in Utah, but the Alliance’s Advocacy Program has allowed us to find common cause with our elected officials. And that saves land. —Cheryl Fox, Executive Director, Summit Land Conservancy in Utah