How much does a strategic plan cost? Stakeholder engagement costs explained.Jan 03, 2024
How much does a strategic plan cost? I get this question every time I explain my work as professional strategist and consultant. I wish the answer was more straightforward than "it depends." Unfortunately, that's actually the answer. Depending on the size and impact of your organization, how you plan to use your strategic plan, and how much assistance you need to develop it, hiring a consultant to help you design your organization's next strategic plan can cost anywhere from $5,000 to multiple six figures. I know - that's a huge range. So let's talk about some of the considerations that go into scoping a strategic planning project so you can secure the right-size contract for your organization's strategic needs.
Throughout my career, I have had the pleasure of working with the best clients - mostly CEOs and VPs of small and medium-sized companies - to help them build their strategic plans. Every organization is unique, and while the overall approach may be similar across organizations, the specific project plan (and cost) depends on a variety of factors. In this first article of this series, let's talk about stakeholder engagement - as it is typically the biggest variable cost in a strategic planning process.
Costs depend on volume
A couple of years ago, I worked on an 18 month project to develop the strategic plan for Red River College Polytechnic. The project included a significant amount of stakeholder engagement. We surveyed over 40,000 alumni and students, interviewed dozens of key stakeholders including donors, partners, and Indigenous community members, and engaged hundreds of employees and industry partners though focus groups and digital tools.
This level of stakeholder engagement isn't right for all organizations, but it was necessary for RRC Polytech at this time in its evolution. The world was just emerging from the worst of the global pandemic. A new President and CEO had been appointed and the executive leadership team had also gone through a number of recent changes. The organization was known as a trades college, despite it having grown incredible industry-led programming in all sectors including digital media, business, health care and technology.
It needed a new brand. It also needed to launch its first comprehensive fundraising campaign. The engagement we conducted to support the strategic plan was designed to also generate the primary research necessary to inform the new brand and comprehensive campaign. In other words, to make so many critical decisions about the future of the organization, the leadership team needed assurance that they understood the strategic context that RRC Polytech was operating in - and a big part of that context included the perspectives of important stakeholders.
An engagement strategy matters
Most organizations benefit from some level of stakeholder engagement before they sit down to develop their strategic plan. If you think about your own organization, you can probably name a dozen people or groups that have an informed opinion about your organization. Their perspectives contain valuable insights that can help you build a truly strategic plan, rather than something more operational. But stakeholder engagement is usually a bit more complicated than just sending out a survey.
Let's start by looking inside your organization. Depending on the size of your organization, you might divide your internal stakeholders into 5 or more groups - for example board members, executive, senior leadership, broad leadership, employees. Depending on the size and nature of your organization, you might want to further identify key groups within your employees. For example, maybe you want to gather specific perspectives from employees from historically marginalized backgrounds to better understand how diversity is elevated (or not) within your organization.
Then you need to consider your clients or customers. Maybe they're a homogenous group, or maybe you have different clients profiles for different products or services. For RRC Polytech, we included students, guidance counsellors, parents, and Indigenous community members as distinct groups with unique perspectives that mattered uniquely.
Finally, consider who else matters outside of your organization. This can include donors, funding agencies, the organizations with which you contract regularly to help you deliver your product or service. It can include affiliates and champions for your organization, organized labour, and any other groups that have an informed opinion and which care about your organization's future.
Match impact/importance to engagement tactics
Let's be honest, not all stakeholder opinions matter in the same way. Your consultant can help you make sense of this huge list of people. We can help you create a stakeholder map and identify the right tools and tactics to use with each type of stakeholder.
For example, surveys can be useful tools when you have a database of thousands of clients. But a well-designed conversation is a far more effective tool to gather insights from a donor or another highly influential stakeholder.
My job as a consultant is to make sure you're using the right tools to gather the right information from the right people - and treating them with the respect they deserve as important stakeholders in your business.
Don't overdo it
My job is also to caution you against foolish use of your stakeholders' time and your money. A rule that we use in stakeholder engagement is that engagement is a two-way conversation. If we are asking for an hour of a stakeholder's time, they should expect that we are only asking for feedback that you're willing to hear and action.
Asking stakeholders for ideas when you actually don't want them is disrespectful and disingenuous. Professional engagement is deliberate, focused, and ensures that participants know how their feedback will be used. I use the standards and guidelines defined by the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) to guide my work with clients. You should always ask how your consultant is incorporating these ethics and standards into their work on your behalf.
Incorporate existing stakeholder data
For large organizations that have thousands of stakeholders, we will always try to draw on work that has already been done and complement it, rather than duplicate it. For example, at RRC Polytech, we were able to incorporate existing employee engagement data into our analysis. This allowed us to just deliver a small number of focus groups that explored specific topics that weren't already covered in the engagement surveys. If you have recent (within the last 3-6 months) client or employee feedback, that could be a terrific source of data that your consultant would love to have to inform your process.
Value of done-for-you (DFY) engagement
Depending on your budget, your consultant can provide different levels of support and service - from a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach where we provide advice but your team develops and delivers the engagement and analyzes the results - to a done-for-you (DFY) model where we draft the stakeholder map (obviously based on your input), design the engagement strategy, facilitate the engagements, and analyze the data.
Consistency and quality
Obviously, the more we do, the more it costs you. But the benefits of a DFY model are substantial. When an impartial consultant interviews stakeholders, the same consistent approach is applied without bias. We are able to identify the key themes that keep recurring and also take note of what's not being said in those conversations. Often, the most profound insights come from reading between the lines and then validating what we suspect may be happening via follow-up conversations.
Stakeholder trust and anonymity
This approach also has the benefit of offering stakeholders anonymity. In general, results are consolidated and anonymized, allowing your stakeholders to be honest and forthright in their feedback. And since we build your strategic plan in response to what we learn in stakeholder conversations and background research, it's critical that we build your plan on an understanding of its true current state - and not just the whitewashed version that is presented when people are afraid to speak up and tell you the truth. In other words, you can't solve the problems of your organization if you don't know about them.
Uncover internal culture issues objectively
Internal engagement conversations are often tainted with remants of old complaints that continue to be pervasive and damaging to your workplace culture. When organizations design a new strategic plan without taking the time to uncover and address the root causes of these issues, they run the risk of tanking their strategy before it even begins. However, a skilled consultant can help you to navigate these old harms as a leader - addressing them appropriately and respectfully, and building their resolution into your strategic plan seamlessly.
What are you paying for?
When you hire a consultant for a DFY approach to engagement, you can expect them to take the lead on the work, but with key input and steps from you and your team. Typically this work starts with stakeholder mapping.
As someone who may or may not have worked with your organization or those in your sector, your consultant won't be the expert on who should be part of your stakeholder map. That said, if you're paying for DFY service, they shouldn't just send you a template and ask you to fill it out.
If I work with you on a DFY project, I develop the stakeholder map with you. We talk about your internal structure, who your clients are, and how you get your work done. I ask you specific questions to generate the information I need to assess the different groups and their importance to your strategic plan. Together, we map out the groups and their relevance. And then you and your team would identify the specific people that need to be engaged within those categories. But this step is easy - by this time, you'll know exactly who those people are.
In addition to identifying key people, you also play an important role in connecting me to them. Typically, I would draft a "warm hand-off" email in your voice and ask you and your leaders to send it to all of the individuals who we are targeting for interviews and focus groups. After that, I follow up to schedule the conversations and conduct the interviews. I even draft a thank you note for you to send to your stakeholders after the interview stage is complete.
Engagement and data management
From there, all of the work falls on my shoulders. I develop the interview script and share it with you for feedback. I conduct the interviews as a professional representative of you. I document the data and flag key statements and insights. In an engagement with 20 stakeholder interviews plus a few focus groups, it's typical that we gather over 100 pages of notes that are full of valuable feedback about all aspects of your organization.
Depending on your organization, I might also deliver workshop-style events to your leadership team and your Board of Directors. These group conversations are highly engaging and - in addition to helping us gather critical data - can serve as important steps in the change management cycle. In other words - the more these key leaders are involved in informing the plan's development, the greater their ownership of it when it comes time to execute.
The next step is to make sense of all this feedback. Since the point of the engagement is to inform your strategic plan, I typically produce a comprehensive strategic analysis report that uses the categories of a SWOT analysis to organize the volume of feedback I've gathered.
Not everything makes it into the report. I will always include the themes that I hear repeatedly. But volume isn't the only indicator of relevance or importance. Sometimes a single statement from a single person articulates a strategic insight that may be essential to understanding your organization's position.
Depending on organizational priorities, I sometimes include an appendix of ideas or recommendations that were shared by stakeholders. These "suggestion box" items aren't intended as a list of priority projects, but instead insights into some of the hopes and ideas of stakeholders. These can be valuable to inform future philanthropy requests and also to understand the level of strategic insight offered by employees.
In addition to the comprehensive report, I typically prepare a short presentation that captures the most important insights that are essential to informing your strategic plan. This brief overview is intended to separate the chatter from the strategic and help you and your leadership team create a plan that responds and gets ahead of the most important strategic influences on your organization.
When to DIY?
Depending on the size and structure of your organization, you might already have the capacity to deliver high quality and objective stakeholder engagement. If you are the leader of a government or large non-profit that has a well-oiled engagement division, you probably won't need much support - though it can be worthwhile to have someone like me work with you in an advisory capacity.
Also, if you are a tiny non-profit with just a few employees, chances are your stakeholder map and the approach we'd use for strategic planning isn't overly complicated. If you have a team member with an aptitude for listening, they can probably squeeze in 8-10 conversations with external stakeholders. And we can gather the internal insights during the strategic planning event, because all of your team members will already be there.
Cost is usually the biggest factor in determining if you can afford consulting support for this part of your strategic planning process. If you're able to extend your budget beyond just the facilitation of the strategic planning event, the most valuable place I'd recommend investing in is as much engagement as practical.
If you really can't afford any DFY support, then you might consider contracting a few extra hours on top of your planning days to have your consultant help you design an approach that you can undertake with your existing resources.
Engagement is always possible
Your consultant can (and should) work with the budget you have to optimize your engagement plan, incorporating the existing skills and talents you already have within your organization. But remember, every conversation requires set up, interview, and data analysis time. So if you're contracting for support, the hours can add up quickly.
No matter what - whether you hire someone to help or do it yourself - don't miss out on this critical step to gather the important perspectives of the people who keep you in business!
Interested in learning more?
If you think it might be time for a new strategic plan, I'd love to chat. You can book a short conversation with me using the calendar link below.