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Survey Report (Part 2): What is Broadly Participative Planning?


In the first part of our report on Academic Impressions' November 2010 survey of presidents, chief financial officers, and academic leaders, we noted that the foremost challenge cited by institutional leaders related to strategic planning and resource allocation is integrating the planning and budgeting processes. In this second part of our report, we want to draw attention to another of the findings.

Key Finding: More than 50% of Strategic Planning Efforts Are Unlikely to Succeed

What has especially caught our attention at Academic Impressions is that more than 50% of colleges that responded to the survey are not pursuing a "broadly participative" process.

Approaches to Planning

What this indicates is that more than half of the strategic planning efforts underway are being pursued in a manner that calls into question the likelihood of implementation.

A participative process in which numerous and diverse stakeholders have input into the thinking at the start is a key to building trust in the plan's direction and investment in its initiatives. In fact, the lower the level of trust within an institution, the more need for an inclusive and participatory process; only through collaborative planning and transparency can institutional leadership begin building the trust and buy-in needed. Broad participation is the difference between a plan that will sit on the shelf for the next ten years and a plan that will actually be implemented.


  • Only one-third of respondents (33%) consider themselves "confident" that their institution's plan would be implemented
  • 42% of respondents cite "creating transparency around the process and decisions" as one of their key challenges faced in strategic planning

We turned to Larry Goldstein, president of Campus Strategies, LLC, and Pat Sanaghan, president of The Sanaghan Group, for their advice -- based on reviewing strategic planning processes at dozens of institutions -- on how to engage in strategic planning in ways that are likely to succeed.

What Is and Isn't Broadly Participative

Even noting that 46% of respondents to the survey consider their planning process to be "broadly participative," Goldstein and Sanaghan both express concern that what constitutes effective, broad participation across campus may be widely misunderstood.

Participation involves more than "interaction," more than offering Q&A or town hall meetings where you roll out a preliminary plan for feedback. A broadly participative process offers stakeholders across your campus meaningful opportunities to contribute to the thinking that goes into the plan, not just opportunities to react to a draft.

Pat Sanaghan, The Sanaghan Group

Sanaghan adds, "Participative planning is not: 'What do you think of what we have already thought about?' It's 'We want your fingerprints and mindprints on the plan.'" The issue is not only that a lack of collaborative planning and broad solicitation of input will prevent implementation; if the entire plan is developed by "the usual suspects," then your institution is relying on the brainpower and resources of a limited number of people, and missing opportunities to benefit from a broader pool of knowledge.

Sanaghan recommends reaching out early in the process to both internal and external stakeholders. It's critical that the institution's president doesn't impose his or her own ideas but solicits the ideas of key constituencies.

If you already have a model in your head, you can either tell people what it is and let it become part of a larger pool of ideas, or you can put it away and trust that your people, with their vision and intelligence, will come up with good ideas.

Pat Sanaghan, The Sanaghan Group

What is not broadly participative:

  • Goldstein cites the example of one institution at which the president brought stakeholders together into a room for one day and then presents the details of the plan, but without actively seeking input
  • In another example, one institution's president scheduled 30-minute meetings with the faculty senate, the student government, and other constituencies across campus, then presented on his ideas for 25 minutes and left five minutes for questions; Goldstein suggests, "Talk for five minutes, then ask questions. Don't go out to report, go out to listen."

What is broadly participative:

  • Assembling a planning task force of 30-40 highly recognized, respected individuals that represent the diversity of the institution; Sanaghan suggests, "you need young people on the task force, not just veterans; you need the best and brightest of your staff and the best and brightest of your faculty"; such a task force builds credibility for the planning effort from the outset
  • Have the task force create the planning questions for the institution and survey the institution's internal and external constituents

Have your task force design a 10-15 question survey to ask staff, faculty, administrators, students, alumni, donors, and parents to offer an informal SWOT analysis. What are their hopes and fears for the institution? What strengths and weaknesses do they see? What opportunities and threats? What needs improvement? Sanaghan recommends asking these questions of as many people as possible, then collecting the data into a web portal (offering full transparency) and looking for trends in the responses.

"There's risk in a collaborative process," Sanaghan remarks, "because when you survey your constituents and solicit their input, you don't know what the answers will be. But the minute you say that you can't share that information, you've lost the trust of your campus."


Read our article, "Plan for Resource Allocation in Ways that Build Trust" in the October-November issue of Higher Ed Impact: Monthly Diagnostic for guidelines and sample meeting designs to encourage constructive input.


Strategic Planning Conference

Join Academic Impressions, Larry Goldstein, and Pat Sanaghan in San Antonio, TX on January 24-26, 2011 for our "Integrated Strategic Planning and Resource Allocation" conference and learn practical strategies to:

  • Engage the campus community in the planning effort
  • Build trust by using an open and transparent planning process
  • Plan efficiently
  • Allocate resources in ways that are consistent with established priorities and institutional values
  • Develop measurable institutional goals that can be assessed


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About the Authors

Daniel Fusch, Director of Publications & Research

Daniel provides strategic direction and content for AI’s electronic publication Higher Ed Impact, including market research and interviews with leading subject matter experts on critical issues. Since the publication’s launch in 2009, Daniel has written or edited more than 500 articles on strategic issues ranging from student recruitment and retention to development and capital planning. If you have a question or a comment about this article, feel free to contact Daniel at