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The Importance of Focus Groups to Strategic Planning

THE VERY NOTION OF STRATEGIC PLANNING DEMANDS that one get out of one's skin to view an organization the way others do. There's valuable information out in the landscape about your organization and all you have to do is ask for it. But, frankly, that's enough to send chills through some of the most hardened organization leaders.

Most organizations rely on the survey as a means to collect community input. But surveys are passive things -- they generally only tell you what's written on the page. No chance for follow-up questions. While they're great for reaching a large group, it's really hard to create a survey that gives you much new or really insightful information. Talking face-to-face in small groups also has its limitations, but hold tremendous opportunities for making deeper connections. And since few cultural organizations seize the opportunity to use focus groups in any regular way....or at all....the format is definitely worth exploring, particularly for planning.

Call them what you will -- focus groups, community conversations, town halls, meet-ups -- these opportunities to explore public perceptions about an organization often reveal insights that can have substantial impact. Imagine re-visioning a key programming component or a whole mission based on community input. What could be more pure, more close to the public benefit our organizations purport themselves to be?

When designing a strategic planning process, I think community conversations are best done at the very beginning as part of a broad research phase that looks critically at both inside and outside of the organization's four walls. However, they can also stud the process at various stages to gain input on the plan as it evolves.

No matter what, these discussions ought to be focused on questions that are critical to the organization's future, such as opportunities for collaboration, what shifting demographics mean to traditional programming, or how can income sources can be grown or redeployed to meet stakeholder needs.

One small cultural organization held an astounding six focus groups as a ramp up to its planning. Staff and board members spoke with town leaders, business owners, parents with young children, other nonprofits in the community, educators, and representatives from a civic group for people of color. The chairman of this effort noted that it was a lot of time to organize the conversations, but what was learned far outweighed the work that went into them. And the good will that has now been generated because of this outreach couldn't have been gained any other way. This group sees the long-term benefit of continuing these conversations, and I hope they will.

You can gather small groups of stakeholders together to talk about almost anything. Test reaction to your current mission statement, ask for help solving a problem that's been kicking around for a while, get some feedback about what future exhibitions, plays or concerts folks would like to see or participate in. Noodling around with a new program idea? Ask potential program users if you're on the mark.

Your commitment to the conversation is to ask meaningful questions and act on the responses.

Photo: 2005 Focus Groups Yass from myrfsphotos

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