In recent months, I have been hearing from many nonprofits that they are revisiting their strategic plans and regrouping for the year ahead. As a consultant who has been through many strategic planning processes and reviewed various strategic plans, I know that the outcome can be energizing — making a significant difference for the organization. However, some teams will just go through the motions because someone, such as a funder, has told them that “every nonprofit needs a plan.” I do believe that every nonprofit needs a solid plan, but it must be owned and embraced by your staff and board rather than to merely cater to funders or certifying bodies.
If your team is ready to create a strategic plan that transforms your organization, review the following tips and terminology to invigorate your process. This terminology and special insights, which I have accumulated from first-hand experience or from other leaders during more than 20 years of strategic planning, have been helpful for many teams going through the process.
Clarify expectations. Get everyone on the same page about your planning process and end product. Ask questions like, “Is this a deep dive into our purpose or existence?” “Is this a quick update to a plan that is working well?” Some people see planning as a Saturday morning task and some see it as a year-long endeavor. Some envision a written plan as a one-pager to guide staff and others want detailed implementation responsibilities with specific dates.
Make implementation the end goal. Nonprofits are famous for treating the finished plan as the accomplishment, but it is just the beginning. Limit the time and energy you invest in your plan so that you have time and energy for implementation. The goal is not a completed plan document but an implemented plan.
Focus on impact and sustainability. Ultimately, your organization has two goals – to make the difference defined in your mission/vision and to be around the following year to make a difference. In your plan, everything should link back to one of those two goals.
Have the “think big and dream” discussion. Taking a little time to dream can be energizing and provide valuable insights about how your efforts might evolve or be better invested.
Don’t run the risk of not having enough strategy in your strategic plan. This advice from LaPiana Consulting highlights the fact that strategy is about cause and effect. If your plan is a “to-do” list of random activities, you may be running off track. Ask, “What is our organization doing and how are we doing it that results in the change we want to create?”
Learn from others. One great way to energize board and staff around new ideas is to provide them with the opportunity to see how similar organizations, often in other communities, are doing the work. Ideally, you can get good bonding time on the ride as well (post-Covid). This also includes benchmarking for costs, processes and staffing structure.
From/To format. Staff and board members should be able to easily explain what will be different as you implement your new plan. This is a simple format to explain your plan in less than a page (i.e., three columns - FROM: Clients come to our downtown office -> TO: We have multiple offices convenient to our clients -> DOING DIFFERENTLY: We increase access and understanding with staff based in communities we serve.)
Use an Opportunity Filter (aka Strategy Screen). Based on this principle from LaPiana, most nonprofit leaders have new ideas coming across their desks every day – from staff, board, funders, partners. You need well-defined criteria, established in advance, to help clarify the best opportunities for your organization and give you permission to say “No.” Start by assessing your mission and values and what you would exclude, and then look at your best roles, followed by financial and staff capacity.
Be sure you have both “Change and Trains” in your plan. Doug Eadie, a nonprofit advisor and coach, introduced the idea of a “Change Agenda.” He noted that every plan must have a few elements of change but not everything can be change or it will be overwhelming. I added “Trains” as the complement as in “keep the trains running on time.” Your plan should drive for a few meaningful changes plus some incremental refinement and improvement.