6 min read

Do you ever find yourself oscillating between planning for the future and worrying that the future is too uncertain to plan for? How is climate change reshaping our communities? How will disinformation impact the next election? What if a major funder abruptly changes their priorities? What if we actually win this campaign?!

This is where scenario planning comes in. Scenario planning is the process of constructing narratives about the future and anticipating actions you may need to take.

Scenario planning helps you prepare for future possibilities and develop contingency plans. It also helps you communicate with your staff, board, and other constituents.

And, it doesn’t have to be complicated! After reading this guide, use our 5-Box Scenario Planning Tool (and Sample) to construct scenarios and outline possible action plans.

The Basics of Scenario Planning

Create stories.

Your goal is to come up with stories that describe a plausible future. Try coming up with three scenarios—an optimistic one, a pessimistic one, and one in-between.

First, identify your key assumption—the variable that drives the scenario. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first question we asked was “how long?” Using this assumption, a scenario plan begins with, “When do we think the restrictions resulting from the pandemic will end? By June? By October? Or, by the end of the year (or even later)?” From there, you can examine other assumptions, such as impact on programs, revenue, and people, for each duration.

Step one in the 5-Box Scenario Planning Tool helps you put these variables together to build your scenarios. For example, if you lead an immigrants’ rights organization, your in-between scenario might assume: “Most in-person gatherings will be barred until October, and most voting will be done by mail. We have to cancel all planned events. Our finances will take a 30% hit.” Voila! You have a basic (albeit incredibly depressing) scenario.

Surface possible actions.

Ask: “If this scenario came true, what would we do?”

  • Write out all the defensive (e.g., cost-saving) moves you’d make to survive until the pandemic is over. Your possible actions (for a pessimistic scenario) might be: “reduce senior team salaries by 15%; close our office when the lease ends in September; operate with a skeleton staff through 2021.”
  • Then, wear your “creative” hat. How could you accomplish your mission differently? How could you raise more revenue? What would it take? Continuing the pessimistic scenario, you might say: “So far, we’ve been using direct action as a way to build awareness. We could pivot to a massive digital media campaign. Our volunteers are mostly youth of color, and they’re digitally savvy. A digital campaign would help us get to our impact goals while keeping our volunteers engaged.”

Sometimes organizations focus on the cost-saving moves but ignore the creative part. Putting those two together will help you decide which actions to prioritize for each scenario.

Outline next steps and triggers.

Surface immediate actions you should take now to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

  • Map your action items. Immediate steps might include, “schedule calls with major donors” or “talk to our base of immigrant communities of color to find out their most critical needs.” Assign owners and timelines for each.
  • Outline indicators. In addition to immediate next steps, you need to determine the likelihood of the scenario and see which actions are bearing fruit. Assign an owner to keep track and periodically report back to your leadership team. An indicator might be: “percentage of major donors who’ve committed to renewing funding for next year.”
  • Set decision points for each course of action. For example, “If >50% of major donors are still non-committal about funding by June, move forward with ending our lease and canceling campaigns.”

Other Scenario Planning Tips

Conduct a scenario planning exercise.

  • Workshop it. Set aside a half-day for a scenario planning workshop with your leadership team (or another group you’ve identified to be part of this process).
  • Outline before diving deep. The facilitator should make sure the group doesn’t dive into one scenario too deeply. Outline all scenarios before getting into the details.

Craft the scenarios.

  • Stick to three scenarios max. Resist the temptation to come up with every conceivable scenario.
  • It’s okay to flesh out just one. Whether it’s the most likely scenario or the most pessimistic one, choose one to build from and lessen your sense of overwhelm.
  • Use a 6-12 month planning horizon. The exact number will depend on your organization, but it’s most helpful to think about your fiscal year or the calendar year.
  • Develop financial projections for your scenario. Outline cost-saving and revenue generation ideas and prioritize measures to adopt.
  • It’s not all doom and gloom. Scenario planning is as much about lifting up new opportunities as it is about identifying risks. Spend time brainstorming ways to deepen your impact, increase your connection to your people, and raise revenues.

Communicate to the broader organization.

  • Decide your “degree of disclosure.” A critical decision leaders must make is how (and which details) you’ll communicate to the broader organization. Knowing that leaders are thinking ahead may allay staff anxiety and build trust in the leadership. On the other hand, seeing details of the financial (and staffing) cuts you may have to make can increase the collective blood pressure. Base your decision on your organization’s culture, values, and decision-making approach. Here are options to consider:
    • Level 1: Everyone knows the basics of the three scenarios, but people are not privy to detailed action plans.
    • Level 2: Staff are consulted on the scenarios (through surveys, team meetings, or other mechanisms), and offer input. For example, you could ask each department leader to sit down with their teams to dive into the programmatic aspects of the scenarios and contribute ideas.
    • Level 3: Full transparency. Everyone sees the full scenario plan.
  • Keep your board or advisory group in the loop. Proactively seek board/advisor help to test your thinking and bring ideas to life (e.g., introducing partnerships, seeking new sources of funding, etc.). Building relationships and buy-in is even more crucial when you’re facing high-stakes decisions.

Gather input.

  • Seek a diversity of perspectives. If you plan to seek input on aspects of the scenario plan from the broader team, look beyond seniority and engage your staff on the front-lines. If appropriate, talk to the primary stakeholders of your programs to understand the impact of any changes.
  • Look for multiple ways to get input. Use surveys or 1-1 interviews, or ask team leads to spend 30 minutes getting feedback at their next team meeting. Some questions you can use:
    • What are we hearing from clients, donors, and partners?
    • How are they responding and what do we know about their future plans?
    • What are other organizations like us doing/planning to do?
    • What should we do about Program X if Y happens?
    • Have you come across any information recently that would impact our organization (such as polling data, economic projections, etc.)?

Ready to get started? Download our 5-Box Scenario Planning Tool.

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