January 2, 2018

Strategic Planning: Strong Relationships and Shared Goals


Interview with Anthony Ruger, United Board Trustee

Strategic planning emphasizes the “intellectual” work of assessing strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats – the SWOT analysis – but often overlooks the equally important “relationship” work. That’s been the experience of Anthony Ruger, a United Board trustee and member of its Development Committee, as well as a consultant to theological schools in the United States on financial strategy, institutional analysis, and policy. Before outlining plans for the future, Mr. Ruger advises, institutional leaders should ask, “Does our staff have a shared vocation and a cooperative spirit?”

Effective strategic planning seeks input from a wide range of stakeholders. In the seminary or university context, that means the voices of faculty, administrative staff, board members, alumni, and donors need to be heard. “Do people believe in the school and really want to do something with it?” Mr. Ruger asked. “For example, when you have a cohesive and enthusiastic faculty, you can get innovation.” In contrast, if stakeholders are preoccupied or mistrustful, strategic planning could turn into an occasion to rehash old battles. Institutional leaders may first need to invest time in restoring relationships in order to create the fertile environment that sparks new ideas for the future.

Social dynamics within Asian higher education institutions will differ from those found in the American seminaries Mr. Ruger works with, but he shares his experience in raising the following questions, which can be adapted to fit local contexts.

What do we do really well? Take stock of what makes your institution distinctive. “If I’m working with a seminary,” Mr. Ruger said, “I may hear, ‘Our urban ministry is strong’ or ‘We have the best Old Testament professors.’ Once you do this type of analytical work, and identify your strengths, then you can think about how to put these findings to work going forward.”

Can we actually produce it? Strategic planning is an occasion to be ambitious, but planners need to recognize potential barriers to success – and the human elements associated with them. Mr. Ruger points to the example of distance learning, which many American seminaries are exploring. “Faculty members are key to the success of distance learning,” he said, “but many of them have spent their careers in lecture halls. They will need coaching in distance learning, ideally private coaching, to avoid embarrassment.” That can be expensive – so institutional leaders need to determine if they can commit the financial and human resources needed for success.

How should we approach fundraising? “Fundraising is first about building relationships” Mr. Ruger said, and that starts with listening. “You might start a conversation with the question ‘What opportunities do you see?’” Sometimes that leads in unintended directions – a seminary may be interested in pastoral innovation while the donor is keen to see a new chapel built – but as these conversations continue, mutual interests start coming into focus. Involving major donors in the organization helps them understand the good work being done – and the involvement can include participation in strategic planning. Ideally the donor eventually decides to make an investment in the mission, making a gift he or she can be proud of.

Staff will own and execute programs if they believe in them, and trustees and donors will provide support when staff are committed and enthusiastic, Mr. Ruger finds, and that means people and relationships set the framework for successful strategic planning.

To read more about the United Board’s support for Strategic Planning and Resource Development, click here.