I admit it—I used to be very skeptical about the usefulness of strategic planning for nonprofits, especially those with small staffs who are often overwhelmed with simply executing their organization’s mission. I’ve also seen many organizations take the time to develop a plan, only to shelve it once it’s complete.
But having been involved with several strategic planning processes at various organizations, I’ve since seen the light. I believe that a strategic plan is in fact, essential for nonprofits to effectively carry out their mission. Why is it so important you ask?
First, the strategic plan determines an organization’s focus and complements its vision. Too many nonprofits don’t have an overarching strategic vision. They’re so busy with day-to-day tasks that the staff simply don’t have time to consider the long-term. In John Naisbitt’s words, “Strategic planning is worthless—unless there is first a strategic vision.” The process of developing a strategic plan involves engaging all of the organization’s stakeholders—the board, staff, and perhaps even clients—in a discussion about an aspirational vision. In other words, answer the question why do we do what we do?
A strategic plan is also necessary because it assists in monitoring progress toward goals and strengthening accountability by keeping both the staff and the board focused on activities that will move the organization forward.
Although it’s very helpful to hire a consultant to develop the strategic plan, it’s not necessary. Don’t let a lack of resources stop you from taking on this important work. The executive director can lead the staff through the process, and the board chair can solicit feedback from board members. In the end, a good strategic plan will chart direction and clarify the organization’s values. It involves stakeholders, sets measurable goals and strategies, outlines responsibilities and timelines, and estimates costs. It also enables staff to measure progress against goals and provides the board with a tool for evaluating the nonprofit’s effectiveness.
Steps for strategic planning:
- Make sure everyone is on the same page. When you develop a consensus with the staff, board members and other stakeholders about the organization’s vision, it encourages everyone to work toward the same goals in a consistent manner. It also becomes easier to create, plan and successfully execute tasks and projects.
- Determine if outside assistance is necessary. For most nonprofit organizations, especially smaller ones, the workload may be too heavy for the staff to successfully develop a strategic plan on their own. In these cases, it makes sense to enlist a consultant to help stay focused on the plan and the overarching vision. If you can’t afford a consultant, investigate potential resources at local colleges and universities. Many offer classes that require students to partner with nonprofits to assist with evaluation, planning and marketing.
- Establish a planning committee. This group should consist of both staff and engaged board members who are responsible for the overall strategic planning process. The committee is responsible for making sure that project deadlines are met and for identifying tactics to help achieve overarching goals.
- Examine the marketplace. How does your organization serve the community? Are there other nonprofits with a similar mission? Are there nonprofits that are natural partners? How does your nonprofit need to change or grow in the next three to five years? Understanding the marketplace in which your organization operates helps not only with planning but also cuts down on wasted time, effort and money.
- Review your nonprofit’s mission and its long-term vision. What are your top five goals? What strategies and tactics will you use to achieve these goals? In order to be successful you need to have a clear vision of what your upcoming objectives and goals will be. Without these, you won’t be able to lay out a clear and succinct work plan, and you may feel as if you are working, but not actually progressing.
- Determine tasks, timetables and financial feasibility. Make sure that the goals outlined in the strategic plan can be implemented on time and on budget. Lay out a clear process and make sure the appropriate resources are in place.
Most importantly, after you’ve completed the plan, refer to it often. I find it helpful to review it about once a month in staff meetings. I also like to refer to it regularly in board meetings. Not only is it gratifying and motivating to check items off the list of tactics, but you also get to watch your vision slowly become a reality.