Strategic Planning for Social Impact

Strategic Planning for Social Impact

Note: This article was written early in my consulting practice. Seven years later, my thinking and writing on strategic planning are deeper, more nuanced, and, well, more strategic (see here).  As examples, I define anchors of strategy and discuss why nonprofit organizations need to invest in strategic planning.  However, overview still serves as a foundation for strategic thinking.

A number of potential client calls are from folks looking for facilitation and process support for strategic planning.  Indeed in this anemic economy, many nonprofit agencies find themselves refocusing on strategy.  Many initial conversations with clients fall into one of three groups.  The first group consists of those agencies who have been through strategic planning “dutifully” every 3-5 years as “every good nonprofit agency does” and now it that time when the planning cycle has looped around.  The second group includes those agencies that have read one or more books on strategic planning or have participated in an onerous planning process and feel daunted by the process.  The third group consists of those agencies who may have been severely impacted by the recent economic downturn and are truly looking for fresh ways to think about how to move forward. While all three groups may have different motivations and perspectives related to strategic planning, all share in common a desire to improve the social impact of their organizations.

Based on literal dozens of conversations with nonprofit leaders, I find that many organizations are looking for a simpler framework for strategic planning.  In this post, I want to outline a strategic planning process that is versatile enough to guide an organization or team as they seek to engage in the thoughtful work of strategy.   In summary, the framework that I most often follow, is the process of 1) establishing the critical social need, 2) creating a compelling vision of how your agency can create a positive social impact by addressing that social need, 3) developing a relevant organizational mission, 4) developing system’s focused program strategies, and 5) creating measures and  outcomes to guide the plan implementation.

Establishing the Critical Social Need:  Every nonprofit should exist only in response to an unmet critical social need.  Unlike the private sector where the market may support companies selling consumables that may have little value, no value, or even a negative value, the nonprofit sector can only afford to support organizations that are positively impacting compelling social needs.  As a result, strategic planning begins by defining the unmet social need.  Such a community needs assessment can be based on existing data, expert opinion, surveys, a systematic environmental scan, or ideally some combination of these data points.

Creating a Compelling Vision of Tomorrow:  I have written before about the relationship between vision & mission and critical social needs.  Within the nonprofit sector and the philanthropy community that supports the nonprofit sector, there is an increasing trend towards defining and working towards a compelling social impact.  The focus on social impact makes it increasingly less tenable for agencies to simply run “good programs” without creating social change. In this context of strategic planning, agencies should ask themselves, “what is the better, more just, and equitable tomorrow we are trying to create?”  A vision, in essence, is the BIG WHY that defines the reason for the existence of an organization.

Developing a Relevant Mission:  An agency’s mission statement should represent the “tactical orientation” of the organization that is closer to the social need being addressed address.   The questions that get to the heart of an agency mission might include ones such as: What programs and services is our agency trying to excel at?  What qualities of culture and community are we seeking to create?  How do we want to be known in the community? If folks seek us out, what are they seeking us out for?  By creating a clear mission you are answering the fundamental questions of the “What and How”  of the agency.

Designing System’s Level Strategies:  In between your vision of tomorrow and the mission you declare today is the “white space” of programs and services.  Strategic plans are not intended to the entirely fill the white space by fully designing programs but rather is space where an organization declares its commitment to strategies designed to create its vision of tomorrow.   The strategy “challenge” is to think systematically and systemically about the opportunities to foster change at the individual, community, and policy level to create a synergistic effect that magnifies the benefits of each individual program. It is also important for an agency to develop capacity strategies that will grow the organization’s ability to create a larger social impact.  For many organizations that implement “programs” the shift to thinking about community impact and public policy can be an exciting process of discovering new potential.    Indeed, the creative energy of designing solutions to compelling social needs has the potential of giving renewed inspiration and aspiration to an organization.

Creating Performance and Outcome  Measures:  As, I have written elsewhere, evaluation matters.  It is only worth the time and energy to create a strategic plan if an agency is willing to ensure that the document is living, breathing and is used as the organizational compass guiding and anchoring decisions.  Ideally, as program strategies are created, the organization also takes time to establish corresponding performance and outcome measures.   Answering the question of how an agency will monitor progress toward the objectives should be integral to strategic planning.  Similar to developing program strategies, the purpose at this level is not to create the actual performance measurement system (i.e., dashboard or report card) but to establish the benchmarks that will help provide assurance that the agency activities will stay focused on the strategic design. Later you can fully develop programs and outcome measurement more precisely based on further study and design.

I purposefully presented in this post a simplified strategic planning process. Unfortunately, on more than one occasion, I have seen (and heard from frustrated potential clients) how an overly complex process of strategic planning gets in the way of successful strategic planning.  Too often the textbook approach to strategic planning is cumbersome and emphasizes precise sequential steps, prescribed analysis measures (i.e., SWOT), meaningless revenue projection exercises and other artificial exercises that constrain thinking.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that strategic planning is a process that requires intentionality, reflection, and analysis –none of which are easy. However, I am a firm believer that social sector strategic planning requires a simpler more aspirational framework as represented by the five slightly imprecise and iterative steps identified above.  Unlike a standardized corporate strategic planning approach Nonprofit and social sector agencies requires a social impact planning model that can dynamically address a wide range of social needs and accommodate a variety of organizational cultures.

A strategic plan that reflects the process moving from a need ==>  to vision ==> then offers specific strategies and measures to guide implementation, will be a framework to help an agency achieve success.  To be useful in creating such a strategic plan, a facilitator needs to, as Simon Sinek (external link), so clearly articulates create a compelling “why,” a consistent “what,” and disciplined “how.”  Applied to a strategic planning framework it suggests that a simplified approach to strategic planning coupled with a systemic facilitation process can assist nonprofit agencies to improve the social impact of their organizations.

~ Mark

Photo Credit: StockSnap


Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.