Essential Steps in Strategic Planning for Communities

by Mandy

Visitor Question: What are the most important steps in a strategic planning process for a community? Is it necessary to do a SWOT analysis?

Editors' Reply: It isn't necessary to do a SWOT analysis to do strategic planning. We're sorry if we gave that impression. The SWOT analysis--strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats--simply is a popular method of starting the strategic planning process for a neighborhood or community association, or a non-profit corporation.

It became popular partly because organizational behavior research showed that the most successful groups took into account not only their internal functional but also what was happening around them.

The environment in which a community is operating also is important. Think about the global shifts in where manufacturing occurs, planetary environmental changes, or broad movements such as the empowerment of minorities and women working outside the home.

For the most part, these changes are beyond the control of a community, and when planning occurred without taking these external changes into account, it tended not to work.

We think the S-W-O-T analysis became popular after larger organizations started including this external environmental scan in their planning process. It has even become considered a "best practice" to involve outside players in organizational planning, if only through a focus group or interview of key external players.

Because the strategic plan frequently focuses on the next few years rather than the long range, the SWOT analysis is especially likely to yield some interesting new perspectives that sitting around just talking about your internal problems, organization, finances, and hopes will not produce.

However, other methods of formulating a strategic plan--a plan that focuses on the steps that will make a community, neighborhood, or organization successful in its environment--are possible. Often neighborhood plans proceed without this external look, if the neighborhood association thinks that the challenges are fairly obvious and fairly simple.

But if the community wishes to be thorough and to respond to complex forces from both within and without, some variation of the SWOT analysis is helpful. Of course the specific terms don't have to be used. For example, a group might consider the idea of taking stock of one's opportunities as an asset-based community development approach rather than "opportunities" analysis.

If there is resistance to the community SWOT analysis, we would recommend adapting it to include only those aspects that needs the most work.

If your particular neighborhood is well aware of its weaknesses, why not have a strength analysis? You could produce an asset map, encourage the residents to learn the history of the area and any famous people who once lived there, and produce some positive publicity.

If you feel overly threatened, which we think some communities are feeling right now in the wake of a major economic readjustment, perhaps you need to concentrate on making an attractive opportunity diagram and not the other portions of the SWOT analysis.

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