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Planning with Positivity: Three Reasons to Use Appreciative Inquiry

Strategic plans. Program plans. Fund development plans. Business plans. Data collection and evaluation plans.

Nonprofits are always engaged in planning.

Yet, all too often, we dread the planning process. Then, after countless hours of work, we put the plan on the shelf and forget about it.

How can organizations engage in successful planning and avoid the common pitfalls?

I’ve recently learned about a model called Appreciative Inquiry that has revolutionized my approach to organizational planning.

Appreciative Inquiry is an inherently positive and deeply collaborative approach to organizational change, that helps teams co-design their future.

In my experience, Appreciative Inquiry is a powerful tool for nonprofits with advantages over other planning methodologies:

1. It helps nonprofits avoid rampant scarcity mentality. Planning efforts often begin by defining the organization’s weaknesses or problems. However, when we focus on the lack of financial resources, inadequate staffing, or other limiting factors, we squash creativity. Social psychologists have studied scarcity mentality and found it limits information retention, logical thinking, and problem solving.

Instead, Appreciative Inquiry considers what is working well and encourages participants to build upon that. Start by remembering why you’re engaged in this nonprofit’s work and the possible impact that can be achieved. Then, the team will be energized to embrace innovation in the planning process.

2. It encourages organizations to listen to the community’s collective wisdom. While many types of planning incorporate stakeholder feedback, Appreciative Inquiry emphasizes the need to listen carefully and co-create solutions, rather than prescriptively determining what a community needs. This paradigm aligns with other emerging best practices such as Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) and community asset mapping.

3. It helps organizations strengthen their team’s engagement. Rather than asking, “What needs to be fixed?”, Appreciative Inquiry examines, “What are we great at?” This simple reframing of the initial question leads to more positive participant engagement—both in the planning process and in ongoing employee and volunteer satisfaction. This model embraces rich dialogue and promotes storytelling to identify growth opportunities. These techniques also honor the unique voice and perspectives of each team member, which helps everyone feel heard and valued.

How can we leverage Appreciative Inquiry techniques to build organizational resiliency?

By focusing on strengths and imagining what is possible, Appreciative Inquiry naturally fosters resiliency and maximizes impact. Whether your organization is engaged in formal strategic planning or more informal visioning for the future, use the questions offered by Appreciative Inquiry to foster good conversation within your organization today:

  • When have you felt most alive, most excited, most engaged in the work you’re doing?

  • When have you been part of an exceptional partnership/team experience? What made it exceptional?

  • What can we learn from our previous successes?

  • What is the smallest change we can make that will have a positive effect?


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