Strategic Plan: Focus, Relevance, Impact

December 05, 2017


This story originally appeared in the fall 2017 issue of AAUW Outlook magazine. Join now to receive Outlook.

Chief executive officer Kimberly Churches is dreaming big for AAUW as we embark on a new strategic plan. In her listening tour around the nation and in smaller group sessions, she frequently suggests ways in which AAUW could imagine our future impact in advancing equity. “Imagine,” says Churches, “if we trained 10 million people through our Start Smart and Work Smart workshops. What if we created nationally respected employer resources to complement the Start Smart and Work Smart workshops? Or if we created a scorecard of state, federal, and international pay equity practices and legislation? And imagine if we became the leading international organization on pay equity.”

Infographic concerning AAUW'S strategic planning process asking where are we now? where do we want to be? how will we get there?

Churches doesn’t suggest she has all or even some of the answers by any means but is taking a blue-sky approach to AAUW’s strategic planning process to help AAUW reach higher and think bigger — an approach often used in business planning that employs creative thinking unfettered by conventional ideas or approaches. AAUW is aiming high in the strategic planning process on which it has just embarked, undertaking an ambitious, rigorous course of action that will sharpen our focus, relevance, and impact and buttress our core issues — pay equity, education, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), leadership, and Title IX — to solidify AAUW’s position as a leader within the equity space during the 21st century.

The process has begun, the Strategic Planning Task Force has been approved, and the schedule established — the target date for board approval of the final plan set for June 2018. The process involves asking these questions: Where are we now? Where do we want to be? How will we get there? And it involves integrating our mission, programs, and business model. “We’re going to need rigorous focus and meaningful relevance in order to achieve lasting impact with respect to our mission,” says Churches. “We’re about advancing equity, but what are we doing to ensure that we are demonstrating measurable impact? This is a new planning process, but it’s more than a plan. It’s about the outcomes we will achieve and how we implement them.”

Churches is conducting a listening tour with members across the country, with the board, and with staff to determine what is currently working and what is not, and to gather feedback about where AAUW distinguishes itself in the national and international equity space. With Sharon McDade of Greenwood Asher as our external consultant, focus groups and surveys will also be used to collect input this fall and early winter.

Cover art for the Fall 2017 issue of AAUW Outlook Magazine. AAUW members attending the 2017 AAUW National Convention in Washington, DC, in a crosswalk with the U.S. Capitol building in the background. 2017 AAUW Lobby Day on Capitol Hill. Copyright David Hathcox for AAUW.

Like what you’re reading?

This article originally appeared in AAUW Outlook magazine.

“We’re honored to have such a terrific Strategic Planning Task Force assembled to help guide and draft the plan,” says Churches. The Task Force includes current and former board members, state and branch leaders, staff, and external stakeholders. The latter is essential in introducing new perspective and questioning past assumptions.

Staff have developed metrics to measure individual and programmatic success and instill accountability for the entire organization. A new organizational chart has been announced, and the staff senior leadership team will be reconfigured to effect greater collaboration and lend greater strategic thinking to AAUW’s internal operations.

And a business model is being shaped and honed to make all of the work possible and sustainable. Budgets are being meticulously reexamined and clarified to make certain that AAUW is positioned for agility and effectiveness, honoring our donors and supporters by being superb stewards of their generous support.

The plan itself will be drafted by March, and then posted to open forum for comments from members before it will be approved by the board of directors next summer. There will also be additional opportunities for feedback and ideas throughout the process.

Clarity is needed at AAUW. “We’ve done amazing work over our rich history, but a lot of people in our AAUW community are disheartened we’re not better known for what we do, and part of that is that we’re kind of a ‘Jill of all trades’,” says Churches. “We need to figure out, together, where we should focus to make real progress in real time. For example, we recently produced a video reacting to the news that the gender pay gap hasn’t changed much from last year. I don’t want to be doing the same video next year,” says Churches. “We all want results, and we should be moving the needle on our priority issues. You can’t do that without ultimate focus.”

Of course we won’t know what our exact priorities and goals will be until the strategic plan takes shape, but, says Churches, “None of us can imagine not working on our core issues.”

Importantly, along with the strategic plan’s priorities, specific benchmarks will be developed to measure real progress toward our goals. Perhaps that means a certain number of women trained to negotiate their salaries. Perhaps that means Title IX compliance checks in every school district. Perhaps that means achieving a certain percentage of change in women’s representation in STEM. Perhaps that means closing the leadership gap for women of color by a certain percentage in a certain field.

List of the names of AAUW staff, members, board members, and other supporters on the strategic planning task force

Research by BoardSource, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that supports, trains, and educates nonprofit leaders, has shown that organizations are moving toward strategic frameworks that articulate these kinds of priorities along with forecasting finances years into the future and articulating metrics, time lines, and milestones looking forward. Breaking down your goals in terms of what’s measurable takes consideration and creative thinking, but it sets up progress and accountability in a way that nothing else can. And it makes our work more achievable and productive than ever.

“Many of us have seen a sea change in progress for women since we first joined AAUW,” says Board Chair Julia T. Brown, J.D. “But while we know we have accomplished much, we have many more barriers to eradicate, and that is in part where the strategic planning process comes in. The strategic planning process will enable us not only to focus on what equity means, but on how we can be successful in attaining it — on how we can be successful in breaking down barriers.”

How will we measure our success in terms of our mission? We want to advance equity, but what are we doing to ensure that we are achieving measurable impact? These are questions that must be answered, because the process is ongoing and inclusive. Members can become involved by answering the call of surveys and focus groups and comment periods that will be forthcoming. We need all the womanpower and manpower in this organization’s membership, leadership, and staff to harness strategies for the future and focus on the solutions we can offer to problems. AAUW can and must accomplish the things that will change lives in a tangible way.

According to the Bridgespan Group, a global nonprofit that strengthens the ability of mission-driven organizations to achieve breakthrough results — the process of strategic planning forces you to become “crystal clear about your mission, target beneficiaries, and goals” and consider how every single program and activity work toward impact and financial sustainability. It requires tremendous discipline, not just at the front end but even more so as the plan is being implemented. Iteration is integral to success. So while AAUW’s plan will be complete in the summer, it will never really be complete. It will be a living document that will be updated as our specific goals are achieved for women and girls — or as we learn lessons from shortfalls along the way.

“The strategic planning process will enable us not only to focus on what equity means, but on how we can be successful in attaining it — on how we can be successful in breaking down barriers.”

— Board Chair Julia T. Brown, J.D.

AAUW has a long history of landmark achievements, from incisive research to changing the law of the land to providing thousands of women funds for graduate degrees. From an engaged, educated, and talented membership to a nonpartisan and solutions-oriented approach. A mission broad and ambitious enough to be relevant for generations. So much has changed in women’s lives in the past few decades, but there’s still much to do. AAUW can be positioned to do more — to do better — for more women and girls if we have a clear view of where we’re going and how we get there together.

Focus. Relevance. Impact. That’s the path to the future of AAUW and future equity. Everyone can contribute to it. Everyone is responsible for carrying it out. Will you join us?

AAUW organizational chart as of January 24, 2018

This organizational chart reflects AAUW’s national staff and went into effect in September 2017. Download the PDF here.

By:   |   December 05, 2017


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  28. Dayla Sims says:

    Question about diversity from outside the branch to have a place on the board. Someone asked me if this would be at just the national level or at all state and branch levels as well.

    Thank you,
    Dayla Sims

  29. Kimberly Churches says:

    Dear Dayla,

    I want to thank you for taking time to comment on the Outlook story about our strategic planning process. Last week, state and branch leaders, along with staff and other stakeholders, had the opportunity to weigh in via a survey on the current draft iteration of the plan. Later this week, we’ll be sending a revised draft along with a shorter survey to ALL active AAUW members. They’ll have over two weeks to read through, comment, question and make suggestions on this iterative process.

    Further, at every state convention, we’re sharing a conversation about the draft goals/objectives in the current draft to talk through ideas with valued members. We truly value every member’s input and every branch’s reactions to the draft, which is dynamic and will continue to evolve through the end of May, thanks to feedback from people like you.

    Again, my gratitude for caring, and for your commitment to AAUW.


  30. Dayla Sims says:

    Dear Kim Churches,
    I applaud your effort at connecting all the dots, and keeping us focused: Focus. Relevance. Impact. I also think that making the “strategic plan” a process along with your listening tour were brilliant to include the majority of stakeholders.

    I am currently the co-president of the AAUW-CA Beach Cities chapter, and I am busy with my co-president on some great strategies that we can use to move our chapter forward.

    One technique is to bring up a topic to the whole group. Then we divide the whole group into two. One group thinks of all the negative things about the proposal. The other group thinks of all the positive things about the proposal. Then both groups share. Since it is not their personal opinions, members tend to be much more open both pro and con. After that we say, “looking at positive results that are possible, are they than the negatives? Then we can start a discussion without fear of repercussions. The conversation is on the good outweighing the bad. Only when we recognize the negative results, can people begin to relax and listen more intently.

    Just an idea for other branches.

    Dayla Sims
    Co-President Beach Cities

  31. Sue Heise says:

    Hi Hannah

    I just saw the actress America Ferrera on The Colbert Show. She talked about the coalition “Time’s Up.” It has a component of raising money for legal defense involving discrimination. I wonder if AAUW’s LAF will join Time’s Up or if we’ll work in concert with that organization to tackle legal defense funds.


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