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Roselyn Kay, MSOD, CSC

About Roselyn

Boards Using Appreciative Inquiry for Strategic Planning

Given the radical changes in the competitive environment, the old model (of strategic planning) is not up to the task of producing the types of strategy and strategic plans that will propel businesses forward in the rapidly evolving future. What is needed is not another strategic planning model, but a strategic thinking framework and process to quickly and smoothly guide an organization through this complex process while engaging the whole system. 

Jacqueline Stavros, David Cooperrider, and D. Lynn Malloy1

Members of nonprofit boards and governing bodies serve organizations that face radical changes and they are called upon to create strategic plans that propel their organizations forward in dramatic new ways. As part of the process, they seek to engage and include a broad spectrum of stakeholders, and to create dynamic energy that will move their organizations toward successful realization of their vision and mission.

This article about Appreciative Inquiry builds on “Boards Discovering Their Best:  An Appreciative Approach,” which appeared in the last issue. This second article focuses on strategic planning and presents an alternative way of approaching the process that offers a powerful perspective shift and a pragmatic model for successfully engaging diverse stakeholders and harnessing energy for change.

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a strength and values-based process that is based on two key premises:

  1. Social constructionism – we create our reality through our language and in dialog with others.
  2. Positive image leads to positive action – to the extent that we create a clear vision of what we desire, we act to make that vision a reality.

This approach is based on the assumption that inquiry about strengths, hopes, values and dreams is itself transformational. It is a philosophy of organizing that by its nature is a collaborative process. AI invites all stakeholders to co-create their preferred future by discovering and valuing the best of the past and existing situation (Discovery), envisioning a desired or potential state (Dream), dialoguing about the potential state, and co-constructing the future (Design and Delivery).

There are several ways in which this process is different from a traditional strategic planning approach:

  • Includes the voices of large numbers of diverse stakeholders in an efficient manner.
  • Focuses the attention of the organization on what it does well. This, in itself, is energizing and provides both insights and forward momentum.
  • Creates commitment to the process and implementation by being both participatory and positive.
  • Takes less time and is engaging.

The following is a case study where the board of a large foundation used AI in its strategic planning process.


The client is a foundation that serves as a network for 350 independent and centers that act collectively as a system. These centers serve to bring people and community needs together through a range of programs and services based upon community needs, demographic area, population size, and other factors.

Although previously the strategic plan was developed using foundation and network staff, in 2004 the board decided to hire outside consultants and use AI as the basis for its strategic planning process.

Strategic Planning Process

The project was conducted over a 10-month period and presented a particular challenge due to the geographic dispersion of the centers and other stakeholders requiring much of the work to be done virtually.

The Discovery phase began in October with the entire National Council (the governing board of the organization) and the Core Project Planning Team composed of 25 former and current board members participating in a two-day training on the Appreciative Inquiry process. During this time, they also enunciated the vision for the process, defined the structure of the process, and developed the interview protocol. Between October 2003 and February 2004, the Task Force conducted more than 200 individual interviews throughout the US, then came together in February for a first round of data review.

The Dream phase took place between February and May when three regional visioning sessions were held with more than 100 participants. In April, the consultants facilitated a virtual daylong session in which the results were shared and the participants had an opportunity to dialog about what came out of these three sessions.

In June, at the foundation’s 2004 national conference a general membership Design summit was conducted with 100 participants to share the draft plan, gain assistance in designing future goals and garner commitment for implementation.


The client not only learned a new way of doing strategic planning, but also resolved critical internal challenges. For example, the foundation and the network had been in opposition and within the network the dominant discourse was negative.  As the network members began to realize that they were not alone and that collectively they had the experience, talent, skills and energy to carry out the new image of the future, the energy shifted toward their positive image – starting first with their strong focus on the purpose of the network.

The primary benefit was that the client system re-identified with what the network was all about, why people were involved, and there was a re-engagement of all parties to find new ways to collaborate and fulfill their mission.

In comments solicited at the end of national summit, participants commented that what they liked most about the process was its inclusivity. Representative comments included:

  • I really feel that this (the plan) is a true ‘bottom-up’ product that has built-in buy-in and ownership by the volunteer centers.
  • You found multiple ways to involve as many people as possible from the field – we drew from ‘experts’ in the field.
  • Including everyone in the network has given us an opportunity or input. We accomplished so much without boundaries.

In addition, the chairman of the governing body expressed his appreciation for the process, saying “We had seasoned professionals and first-time attendees participate in the process, and each person contributed something valuable and beneficial to help move the (organization) forward.” He was also pleased that one of the benefits of this broad participation was the energy and enthusiasm created. Subsequent to the planning summit, he reported that he was so compelled by the outcomes of the summit that he reorganized the governing body to align with the topic areas identified for the strategic plan. This subsequently allowed the strategic plan to be a living document that continues to guide and drive the activities of the governing body and the organization.


This case demonstrates how AI has the capability to create connection, relationship and common ground where virtually none had existed. Consequently, it strengthened the social and interpersonal fabric of the system, built trust and hope for the future, energized optimism, and created determination to take action to make images real. Building on this energy and new sense of connectedness, the system was able to create a collective dream of new possibilities and design their chosen future.

The primary benefit was that the client system re-identified with what the network was all about and why people were involved. This led to the re-engagement of all parties in finding new ways to collaborate and fulfill their mission.


1 Jacqueline Stavros, David Cooperrider and D. Lynn Malloy, “Strategic Inquiry" Appreciative Intent: Inspiration to SOAR – A New Framework for Strategic Planning,” AiPractitioner, November 2003, p.11.



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