Section 13: Strategic Planning

Why is Strategic Planning Important?

CILs frequently encounter challenging situations, including federal, state, or local budget cuts or delays; cash flow difficulties; contract setbacks; trouble recruiting new board members; retaining or downsizing staff; and emerging priorities and crisis situations requiring fast actions. Immediate problems may consume a great deal of your time. Having a coherent vision, mission, and long-term strategic plan to guide the CIL will go a long way toward effective management of these situations.

People are often reluctant to engage in strategic planning because they think it may take too long, be too difficult, or they don’t know where to start. However, engaging in strategic planning will create a roadmap to more efficiently allocate time and resources, achieve consensus, stay on target, create systems change, and evaluate performance.

Strategic planning is also required. ACL/OILP will want to see an annual and a three-year work plan that include the following:

  • Goals and objectives for achieving the CIL’s mission and vision;
  • Specific activities to meet the requirements in the Standards and Assurances;
  • Specific services, priorities, and types of services to be offered;
  • Goals, objectives, and activities consistent with the current SPIL;
  • Goals and objectives for obtaining or increasing non-Title VII funding (recommended);
  • Goals and objectives addressing training for board, staff, and volunteers (recommended).

Strategic planning can move the board and staff toward achieving prioritized goals and create an opportunity to refresh values, vision, and mission.

Vision and Mission Statements

Vision – A vision statement provides a compelling description of what the world will look like after you’ve completed your mission. Your vision statement should be concise and concrete. It should inspire commitment and action. Examples:

  1. IndependenceFirst (Milwaukee, WI)  ( has a vision for full inclusion of people with disabilities in every aspect of our community and commits itself toward this end.
  2. Access Living (Chicago, IL)  ( envisions a world free from barriers and discrimination – where disability is a respected and natural part of the human experience and people with disabilities are included and valued.

Mission – Your mission states your purpose. Your goals and objectives should move your CIL closer to achieving this mission. Examples: 

  1. The mission of IndependenceFirst is to effectively facilitate empowerment of individuals with disabilities through the core services of: Advocacy, Independent Living Skills, Information and Referral, Peer Support and Transition. IndependenceFirst promotes diversity and multicultural participation in its operations and services.
  2. We [Access Living] ignite disability power and pride, provide critical services, and break down systemic barriers to create a stronger, more inclusive society.

Strategic planning provides the opportunity to assess where the CIL is in accomplishing its mission and achieving its vision. Each work plan should move you closer to the community, society, and world you want to live in.

Strategic planning itself requires forethought and effort. Here are some tips from three SILC directors who have collaborated with their states’ CILs for planning. The approaches are all applicable to strategic planning in individual CILs, as well.

Steps to Become More Strategic

Ann McDaniel, West Virginia SILC ED, and Brad Williams, New York SILC ED, have experienced success in strategic planning with these key steps:

  • Plan your strategic plan. Decide who needs to be involved in your strategic planning process. The most effective plans involve the board of directors (or a board committee), the ED, and key staff members. Find a time and place for the strategic planning to occur without interruptions. People need to step away from their daily responsibilities (including phone/email/texts) in order to give their complete attention to all tasks. How detailed the planning needs to be and how long it will take depends on what you want to accomplish within your strategic plan time frame and how many steps will be needed to complete your goals.
  • Support inclusion and accessibility in all processes.  
  • Take an organizational snapshot. Develop a comprehensive snapshot of how your CIL is functioning. Gather key information through a process such as a SWOT analysis (Strengths to build on, Weaknesses to be strengthened, Opportunities to be taken, and Threats to be avoided or mitigated). This will inform your strategic planning process and help identify areas to address, goals to achieve, and the need for potential resources.
  • Consider gathering external perceptions to better understand how your CIL is viewed by consumers and other stakeholders.
  • Share the results of your completed snapshot with everyone in advance in order to identify gaps and think about potential goals.
  • Apply a timeline to be able to address issues and view progress.
  • Hire an outside facilitator. An outside experienced facilitator is probably not essential, but definitely recommended. A facilitator can make a big difference in how smoothly your planning process goes, plus it’s better if all the CIL participants can be fully engaged in the process. Facilitators provide impartial direction, mediate stressful discussions, and help reach resolutions more readily.
  • Identify your common goals and areas where you agree as a means of getting everybody on the same page when there are disagreements. There's usually not just one right way to accomplish the goals. Allow for negotiation and give and take on how best to get there. The point is to identify and consider all ideas before deciding which ones you want to use.

Mellie Santora, Arizona SILC Innovation Director, has developed a number of other useful strategic planning tips shown below.

  • Remember that your staff and board members are vital assets. Ask questions to discover hidden skills and talents. Encourage everyone to share their ideas and interests. Try to inventory your assets at least annually.
  • Learn your history. When you are developing your plan, consider your history, including which strategies have and have not worked, and the reasons why. Check your archives, ask people, and obtain as much information as possible. You don’t want to implement something that has already been tried without clear results, or at least not without major revisions.
  • Build on your successes, the strengths you already have, and strategic moves that you are currently using. Try to predict potential obstacles and barriers with possible strategies to overcome them. Develop your projects with confidence.
  • Design with the end in mind and be intentional. Think about where you want to be. Create timelines and actions for each major step.
  • Be intentional about fulfilling your mission, vision, and goals. Reflect, build, and rebuild on purpose. Stay on top of the little things and the big things will come into place.
  • Ask critical guiding questions. Three important questions to guide your work are: What must we do?  What can we do?  What can’t we do? 
    • The activities that you must and must not do are determined by your organizational status, federal/state laws, bylaws/charter, and policies and procedures. Activities that you can do are affected by your resources, expertise, partnerships, and constituency.
  • Determine Priorities. Determine what your most important priorities are. Consider different areas where your services need to be developed, expanded, replicated, and sustained. Decide what you can accomplish in reasonable increments within your timeframe. Develop your goals based on your top priorities from your snapshot, SWOT analysis, and external input. Make sure that they are consistent with your mission and vision.

Take Planning to the Next Level

Move your CIL beyond the required three-year plans and create a culture that staff, board, and consumers want to participate in and support.

  • Incorporate diversity at every level. Consider strategies on how you will incorporate diversity with your staff, board, strategic planning, outreach, programs, services, and evaluation, if you haven’t already. Compare the composition of your community members to your CIL staff, board, and programs to ensure that you are representing and including everyone. Pay attention to making people feel valued, included, and welcome. (See Section 8.)
  • Foster a learning culture. Understand what is and is not working well, consider what is changing, and use that knowledge to adapt and improve. A learning and growing CIL is continually planning, doing, reviewing, and reflecting. Encourage ideas and problem-solving at all levels, without blame or criticism.[1] Discover the best practices that other CILs are offering to improve services.
  • Strategically build your brand. Build your organizational brand based on strategy. Branding includes a message and conveys who you are, what you do, and why that matters. A broader and more strategic approach results in greater social impact, partnerships, resources, organizational cohesion, and capacity.[2]

Resources for a Deeper Dive

[1] Abercrombie, R., Harries, E. & Wharton, R. (June, 2015). Systems Change: A guide to what it is and how to do it. LankellyChase Foundation. Retrieved from

[2] Kylander, N. & Stone, C. (2012). The role of brand in the nonprofit sector. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved from