How to shift focus in a crisis while remaining true to your mission? Dust off your strategic plan.

Hannah Leighton, Director of Research and Evaluation

Over the last two weeks, the FINE team has asked ourselves a number of questions we imagine a lot of organizations across the country are asking themselves right now: What does our COVID-19 response look like? How can we shift our efforts to be most helpful, quickly, without losing sight of our mission? How will a programmatic pivot impact our existing commitments slated for the coming weeks and months?

Like other organizations, we are trying to understand what this unprecedented time means for our staff, projects, network, and funding. As it turns out, it has been our strategic planning - not crisis reactions - guiding our response to the coronavirus.

Let’s Rewind 6 months...

Last September, our 6-member staff team met in upstate New York for two days of strategic planning, team building, and some after-hours mushroom foraging. Our original strategic plan was drafted in 2016 and outlined our goals, targets, and strategies for three years. With 2020 around the corner, we rolled up our sleeves and 1) evaluated the effectiveness of the current plan, 2) identified necessary updates based on what we’d learned and how the farm to institution sector has changed over the past three years, and 3) developed meaningful strategies for integrating this document into our everyday work. 

We refined our goals, identified meaningful and measurable targets, created tracking tools to monitor progress, and embedded these elements into our work plans. In early winter, our Network Advisory Council refined the plan. By the new year, we had a comprehensive document to guide our efforts in the coming years: our 2020-2022 strategic plan. 

Staying grounded in a time of crisis

And then everything changed. In the blink of an eye, we were face-to-face with a global health pandemic, an economic crash, and a profound disruption to our food system. What we didn’t realize in the fall -- couldn’t have realized -- was that by mid-March, we would be thinking less about the comprehensiveness of the strategic plan and more about its adaptability.  How can this plan guide us as we quickly address new needs, without losing sight of our fundamental principles? 

Having this foundation has grounded our team. With each new need identified, we ask “How can we fill this gap without drifting out of our lane? Does this still fulfil our organization’s goals?” 

A critical element of this decision-making process is our strategic filter, below. We run a new opportunity (or threat) through this matrix and assign points. The resulting score helps us determine if a new project, report, or event is an appropriate commitment of energy, or if pursuing it takes away capacity elsewhere. This has been particularly useful in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, as we attempt to be nimble enough to pivot to the changing needs of the institutional food system, while remaining accountable to our existing commitments. We invite others to adapt this tool for their own organizations (and let us know if you do!) 

FINE Strategic Filter - a table matrix of categories and points (above) FINE's Strategic Filter (click to enlarge). A new opportunity needs to receive at least 16 points, with no zeros, in the first part of the filter before it can proceed to the second section. If it scores below 16 points or receives any zeros, it needs to be modified before moving ahead to the second section. We also add one bonus point if a project directly addresses climate change. We don’t require a particular point total; instead, we use the system to set priorities, make decisions, and identify ways to align new work with our strategic plan. 

Download Strategic Filter (PDF)

Download Strategic Plan (PDF)

New Lens on Strategic Plan Goals

FINE’s full strategic plan outlines five goals, each bolstered by two to five indicators of success and supporting targets. We reference our goals every day, even while some of the details have shifted in recent weeks. 

Goal 1: More regional food served at institutions

Goal 2: A more developed and diverse regional network of individuals and entities across all parts of the food system who mobilize the power of institutions to transform the food system

Goal 3: Stakeholders have knowledge, tools, and resources for advancing farm to institution in New England

Goal 4: Stronger state and federal policies that support farm to institution 

Goal 5: A robust and sustainable organizational foundation that supports FINE’s mission driven work 

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, our number one goal of getting more regional food served at institutions has shifted. It is now less about procurement percentages, and more about keeping intact the supply chains and supporting structures that connect local farms to the markets that feed people who previously relied on institutions for food. One way we are doing this is through this COVID-19 matchmaking tool which lists needs and surplus of Institutional food, resources, labor, and technical assistance.  

Goals 2 and 3 remind us that connection, facilitation, diversity, equity, and resource sharing are key in a crisis. We are therefore ensuring our communications platforms, resource databases, and upcoming events continue to serve the network during this unfamiliar time. Our policy goals are now expanding beyond procurement policy into legislation that will support local farms and food access initiatives. And goal 5 ensures that our staff and advisors remain productive, accountable, creative, and healthy. Goal 5 also highlights our dedication to strong evaluation which we will need in order to understand the impact of this challenging  time in our region and network. 

A Vision…

FINE’s mission is to mobilize the power of New England institutions to transform our food system. And our vision, which has remained the same since the first version of the strategic plan was drafted, outlines the following: 

By 2030, we envision New England institutions and the FINE network playing leadership roles in cultivating a region that is moving towards self-reliance. We envision an equitable and just food system that provides access to healthy and abundant food for all New Englanders, and is defined by sustainable and productive land and ocean ecosystems.

We recognize that the farm to institution landscape has changed a lot in the last few weeks. It’s hard to know what the months ahead will hold for our region’s 200 colleges, 250 hospitals, and 4,628 K-12 schools. What we do know is that in the last three weeks New England’s institutions and the farm to institution network have reacted quickly and collaboratively. Institutions and those that support them are engaging across sectors to creatively manage a disrupted supply chain using local food; they are playing matchmaker, developing CSAs, and building online stores so that local farmers and producers, who relied on institutional markets, have access to customers; and they are simultaneously making sure students have access to nutritious and reliable food.

New England’s institutions are already leading us toward a more self-reliant food system and FINE will continue to work to mobilize their power now and in the future.