Strategic Planning with STLS

The Southern Tier Library System facilitates strategic planning with its members using our Ultra Simple Planning Model – a mix of tools from a variety of sources, including the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, Pioneer Library System, World Cafe Foundation, and more. The resulting one to three year plans are action based and aligned to both community aspirations and the library’s mission. To request consultation on the process, or facilitation assistance with any step, contact Margo Gustina at

For each step in the process, just click the + to see the resources you could use in that step. The tools listed below are not the only tools that could be used in this work. Rather they represent the tools we’ve found most useful when we’ve experimented.

Do you already have a mission? If yes, review it as a full library team – board, director, and staff and confirm that it reflects both current practice and the service aspirations of the organization. In this review, focus on the content and spirit of the mission – not the wordsmithing. If everyone is on board for the spirit, but don’t like the language, ask someone to take on creating a few versions with the same spirit but different language for the organization to consider. Remember, the mission should be a broad road map, not a prison! You can revisit it throughout the planning process, and beyond, for necessary revisions.

Don’t have a mission? Consider these questions adapted from LaManda Joy’s Start a Community Food Garden (2014):

  • What are the geographic boundaries or limitations of your service area?
  • Who do you serve? Are there limits to who you serve within the geographic boundaries? Are there targeted or special populations that require mentioning in the mission?
  • Do your funders/club/governance require mentioning or special inclusion in the language in your mission?
  • What are your unique assets? How do they impact how you serve your community?
  • What don’t you do? What do you do?
  • What is your priority goal?

For the full Get Together guide, with Retreat Case Study and activity sheet, see here:  A Guide to Building a Shared Mission (.pdf)

Intend to use the case study to develop your own retreat? Remember to test the timings yourself! And, consider broadening the group invited to the session, by including the director, staff, and friends or club members.

For background on the adapted Community Conversations exercise that forms the backbone of the retreat case study, check out this presentation by R. David Lankes which Margo attended and which inspired this planning path:

Sometimes the best tools are developed outside our profession. Check out Start a Community Food Garden: The Essential Handbook by LaManda Joy, Timber Press, 2014 for some excellent guidance on organizing a lean, dynamic, active group of people toward a shared goal.

Listening to your community is part of the daily activity of the library. As you begin your planning process, collecting data formally can happen through Community Conversations, Focus Groups, and Surveys. There also may be needs unspoken that can be identified by looking at demographic data.

We have found the Libraries Transforming Communities tools to be really useful in gathering what we call Public Knowledge – all the stuff the community knows about itself that the library can use to realign services with the community. Check out all the tools at the Turning Outward Resources for Libraries page.

Ask Exercise

Why do it: Empowering is the word we hear most from libraries who begin the planning process using the Ask Exercise. They feel empowered knowing the direction they chart is grounded in conversations they had with real people they serve.

Blanks: Libraries Transforming Communities Ask Exercise (.pdf); Example of Local Customization (.docx)

Tips for getting it done: Partner up! Just about no one is good at listening and writing at the same time. If partnering up simply isn’t an option, listen first and record later. Make a note that the recording happened after the listening.

You might be tempted to print these out and put them as written surveys around the community. Having conversations allow you to delve deeper into answers you weren’t quite sure about and demonstrate that your organization is actually listening to the community. It also gives you the ability to say at the end that you are using the information to inform the strategic planning process and to ask if they’d be interested in helping in the future.


Aspirations Exercise

Why do it: Motivating is the word the teams I’ve worked with use at the end of the Aspirations Exercise. At the end of a group working through each of the phases of co-creating the story of community work, they feel like a team focused on making their corner of the world a better place.

Blanks: Libraries Transforming Communities Aspirations Tool (pdf); Aspirations Facilitator’s Guide (pdf)

Tips for getting it done: Having two people for this helps too – one to listen, one to distill and facilitate. Careful that when you are recording what you hear to record what you actually hear – the actual words. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification to ensure you’re capturing the good thinking in the room. As a facilitator, let silence be there so people have the space to speak – facilitate, but don’t guide. Also, be aware of who is and who is not speaking. Try, if possible, to engage all voices in the room.


Our hope is to live in a community where everyone is thriving. However, right now we face a lack of jobs and other resources for healthy, happy, safe living. In order to get there as a community, we need to revitalize [Main] Street with commercial and cultural enterprise.

3rd Party Population Data

Does is support or refute your vision? Does it add dimension or complicate your resource searches?

Kids Wellness Indicator: This service gives

211 Counts: This service gives

Local & regional surveys conducted by area agencies & organizations:

Asset mapping

Why do it:

Blanks: In a facilitated conversation, we ask that the committee divide into two groups – one which will list out all the resources the community has, including agencies, organizations, active individuals, and geographic & natural resources; Some groups respond better to this more formal tool: Asset Mapping (.pdf)

Tips for getting it done:


Community Conversation (World Cafe)

Why do it:


Tips for getting it done:


Focus Groups

Why do it:


Tips for getting it done:


Have a vision – Translate what you’ve heard into relevant impactful service. Being able to articulate what you want will be key in sharing with your community. What is your vision for a library that facilitates your community members’ aspirations?

Read & Dream exercises

Million Dollar Service


Does it facilitate aspirations?

What can you do? How many people do you have working on the project of making your library excellent? What are strengths and limits? We can’t do it all, all at once, so take a minute and honestly assess your abilities.


Align services – Match strengths to priorities”] You have done the soul searching, the listening, the research. Now you must match your services to your abilities and your community.


“Make a calendar – plot your path to success!”] Making a calendar is about setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound) goals. Use this calendar to hold yourselves accountable to your goals. If this is an annual plan, what is the one big thing all these smaller, time-bound goals accomplish?


Why do it:

Blanks: Pioneer Template

Tips for getting it done:

Examples: Pioneer Plan; SSCL Plan;

budgeting”] The only reason to plan is to successfully achieve the excellence you want for your library and your community. Make the planning worth it by doing it.

Resource use – stakeholder, partnerships, grants


Service-based budgeting

Funding referendum

What? This isn’t a typo. As you change the services you offer, or their delivery, marketing, etc., you need to check in with your community, at the least, annually.


Evaluation based on plan: Pioneer; STLS; SSCL

Southeast Steuben County Library – Trust the Community

Dundee Library – Starting Where You Are

Wide Awake Club Library – Geography as Barrier and Asset

Dormann Library – All Hands on Deck







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