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Create a strategic plan that dazzles

Photo of Alison Go
Alison Go

Alison is Chalkbeat's Chief Strategy Officer. She oversees Chalkbeat’s strategic planning and major growth initiatives.

Why This?

The local news industry has been in a state of upheaval for more than 20 years, but I have never been more optimistic than I am right now. Each day, more people are waking up to the need for civic, community-centered news, and the ranks of journalists-turned-entrepreneurs continue to grow. The Institute of Nonprofit News (INN) boasts more than 360 nonprofit newsrooms as members, while the Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers includes more than 400 member newsrooms.

Each one of these hundreds of organizations and news leaders has a vision for their work, but too few turn that vision into a tangible output that can be used to inspire, galvanize, and recruit more true believers to the local news cause. Enter a great strategic plan. A great strategic plan defines an audacious goal and makes a powerful case for why your organization should exist and how it can be maximally impactful and sustainable. When you’ve done this well, your news organization has a clearer and easier path to success. It is easier to tell your story, hire, motivate your team, fundraise, sell ads, convert subscribers and members, say “no” to distractions, and double down on the things that will maximize your impact.

The Common Mistake

The most common problem I’ve seen with strategic plans is that they are in fact operating plans, too focused on the “what” and “how” and not enough of the “where to” and “why us.”Instead of clearly defining what the organization will do better than anyone else, these plans spend too much time defining what they will do better than before. If your strategic plan is not grounded in your specialness and does not define a bold destination, it is just a checklist. It won’t differentiate, won’t inspire, and won’t help you make the tough prioritization decisions that are inevitable when running a news organization.

Our Approach

We went all in.

Your organization cannot craft a strategic plan using a randomly chosen executive’s spare time. Hire a firm (yes, it’s worth it if you find a good one), or ensure you have an executive who can spend a majority of their time on it for approximately six months. At Chalkbeat, my role was created so I could design our strategic growth plan and then execute it, and I spent 80 percent of my time over more than eight months working to publish our plan. If you do decide to go internal, expect the strategic planning process to “eat your life,” as an executive at another nonprofit news organization put it.

We were cautiously collaborative.

Perhaps the root cause of generic strategic plans is that they are created too collaboratively. News leaders understandably seek completeness, inclusivity, and buy-in during their strategic planning process, but without guardrails, this collaborative approach ends up watering down that “ah hah!” spark that is present in all excellent strategic plans. 

Our process was indeed infused with inclusivity and genuine listening — what we called a strategic listening tour. We interviewed our own reporters, bureau chiefs, editors, and staffers and got feedback from readers, funders, and non-Chalkbeat news leaders. We repeatedly drafted and debated our core premise(s) with the rest of the leadership team and our board of directors. We wrote many drafts of the strategic plan and held multiple office hour sessions to elicit staff feedback. The process was long — eight months to publish the first version of our strategic plan and another eight months to fully complete the post-pandemic revision — but it was critical for buy-in and truly improved the plan.

But we put up an important guardrail to all this listening to ensure our larger vision didn’t get watered down or get too in the weeds: We kept the core strategic team as small as possible, and we gave ourselves permission to ignore feedback that took us off course. At Chalkbeat, this team was just three people — the chief strategy officer (me), the CEO, and the publisher — and it was our responsibility to ensure the vision remained bold and clear. 

Think of the best enterprise reporting projects. There are numerous people involved in this process — sources, contributors, editors, fact checkers, and so on — but there is always a small core team that has a vision for the story, keeps it focused, and brings it to the finish line. Your strategic plan deserves no less.

We articulated an audacious goal.

A “plan” implies some sort of destination or end state. Before you start to draft a strategic plan, you need to define your so-called North Star, something bold and inspiring but still concrete — just at the edge of what you consider possible. People in your organization (including on your leadership team and board) may find this audacious goal uncomfortable — it will feel too big, ambiguous, and scary. But this is an important step, because a goal that is both ambitious but plausible will force you to truly find your special sauce. In the early stages, you don’t necessarily need to share this goal broadly, but it’s good for the small core team to put a stake in the ground and then spend the planning process gathering ideas, data, and testimonials that support that goal. 

At Chalkbeat, our pre-pandemic strategic goal was to expand from seven locations to 18 at a pace of three new locations per year. Why 18 locations? And why three per year?  Some of it is science and a lot of it is art. Eighteen bureaus were just enough to get the bare minimum coverage in each of the eight major economic regions in the country. And three new places a year seemed like a difficult but not impossible pace with the right planning and resourcing; previously, we were launching one new bureau about every year and a half without any formal growth plan.

This aggressive goal also forced us to ask ourselves a litany of hard questions. “Why do we think we can remain sustainable at 18 locations?” “What do we need to change to more than quadruple our pace of expansion?” The first question forced us to understand our value proposition; the second helped us home in on what exactly we needed to invest in to grow — like more robust revenue, finance, and human resources teams and more flexible technical infrastructure to add more bureaus with just a click (or close enough).

A timeline that shows Chalkbeat's growth starting in 2013 (2 bureaus) and projecting to 2026 (19 bureaus).

Chalkbeat has expanded to new locations since 2013; we currently have eight locally based bureaus as well as a national desk.

We questioned conventional wisdom.

On your strategic listening tour, you will encounter a lot of well-meaning, seemingly straightforward questions that will turn out to be frustrating red herrings. At Chalkbeat, the most challenging ones sounded like: 

  • What is your plan to wean yourself off philanthropic dollars? 
  • How are you going to dramatically grow your audience? 
  • How will you flip your revenue model so the majority of your dollars are coming from membership and sponsorship?

The implication of these questions was: What is your plan to start looking less like a nonprofit and more like a for-profit news organization?

A diagram that shows two versions of how a local news organization could be set up.

Traditional newspapers cover several topics in one geographic area; Chalkbeat's model covers one topic across several geographic areas.

We spent so much time trying to respond to these questions with an exciting and convincing plan to grow a massive, monetizable audience, until we finally realized… we don’t want to be a for-profit news organization. Of course we always want our revenue to be more diverse than the year before and our audience to be bigger than yesterday’s, but these questions were essentially asking: What is your plan to succeed in a way that is the opposite of your success to date? (For reference: 85% of Chalkbeat’s revenue came from foundations and major donors; 14% from sponsorships and other earned revenue; and 1% from membership.)

So what was our revenue strategy? Instead of weaning off philanthropy, our plan was to lean even harder into it — especially local philanthropists and foundations. And instead of plotting out our Buzzfeed-ification strategy, we would further invest in our niche topic (public education) as well as in local engagement, local partnerships, and real world impact. This feels so obvious to us now, but at the time it seemed wildly counterintuitive and controversial.

We supported our plan with data.

The confidence to stare down these distracting questions came from a track record of success supported by data collected from within and outside our organization. Turns out, this local philanthropy strategy was already working well for us. We’re exceptionally good at raising philanthropic dollars from local foundations that care deeply about education, with each of our local bureaus primarily funded locally (not nationally). For instance, our Chicago bureau is supported by the Joyce Foundation, Crown Family Philanthropies, and the McCormick Foundation, while the Colorado bureau is funded by the Anschutz Foundation, the Colorado Trust, and the Bohemian Foundation. Conventional wisdom says that philanthropic gifts do not reliably renew, but our data said the opposite: In 2019, 75% of the grants that were up for renewal that year renewed. 

Looking forward, the market research for our plan also seemed promising. Philanthropic giving to education causes topped $64.11 billion in 2019 (the second highest of all categories; tripling our budget wouldn’t put a dent in that figure). And a cursory search of donors showed that most major metro areas have at least one or two donors who could anchor the creation of a new bureau. The potential was there. We just needed the resources to do the groundwork in those places. 

We wrote it all down and shared it with everyone.

Finally, we wrote the plan down. In it, we defined who we are, what we do, what makes us special, what our big goal is, and what steps we’re about to take to get there, roughly in that order. We included examples of impact and shared our internal data. It went through multiple rounds of edits, and we roped in our design and product teams to make it visually sing. We published it, tweeted about it, and turned to it when we needed guidance. Ideally, it doesn’t sit on some metaphorical shelf to be admired from afar, but instead becomes part of your organization’s rhythm and vernacular. 

Key Takeaways
  • A good strategic plan will feel controversial at first.

    Some people won’t like it, but other people will REALLY like it. Those true believers will become your most ardent readers, funders, and employees. 

  • A good strategic plan won’t feel controversial when you’re finished with it.

    But you’ll need to make your case well, supporting it with inspiration, data, and careful storytelling.

What is the Local News Field Guide?

The Local News Field Guide is a resource for journalists and news entrepreneurs tackling the ever-changing landscape of news. The guide is written by staff members of Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization that provides essential local education reporting.

The Local News Field Guide is supported by Chalkbeat's partnership with the Google News Initiative (GNI).

Learn More