Excuses for Not Planning

Four Excuses Nonprofits Use to Avoid Planning

Note:  This is the second in a series of three blog posts written in response to the 2013 report, Pacific Northwest Nonprofit Survey report. 

This is the second post in a series on nonprofit planning.  In the first article (here), I asserted that nonprofit organizations avoid strategic thinking and planning at their own peril.  Impact matters more than ever and strategy is the foundation of impact.  Yet, I often hear versions of the pronouncement that “strategic planning is dead.” The claim, I was once told, goes back twenty years to a Harvard Business Review article by Henry Mintzberg (HBR Article).  Unfortunately, Mintzberg’s article is titled the Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning and, from a “balcony view,” he wrote,

“Through all the false starts and excessive rhetoric, we have learned what planning is not and what it cannot do.  But we also learned what planning is and what it can do, and perhaps of greater use, what planners themselves can do beyond planning.”

In essence, Mintzberg was arguing that strategic planning is only strategic when it is the catalyst for action after the plan is written. Strategic planning is not dead. What is dead (or should be dead) is the pedestrian and un-strategic way many approach planning and/or the inability to use a plan effectively after it is written.  To argue that planning is dead is nonsensical and it is time to dismantle the lame excuses we use to avoid planning.  Here are four of the most common excuses that I have encountered for why nonprofit agencies don’t engage in thoughtful written planning. By naming the excuses it gives you permission to overcome them.

Things change too fast to plan: In a recent Forbes blog post (hawking a new business book) we read, “Developing flexibility for an uncertain economy should be on every company’s planning agenda. Will the company react quickly to major changes in the external environment? Can it expand to serve new customers faster than its competitors can? Can it survive a downturn that kills other companies? This is the ultimate capability on which the future of the business depends.” (link to series) Does this sound good? Does it even ring true? You would get no argument from me.  However, while this author uses the speed of change and unpredictability to invalidate the need for strategic planning, experience has taught many of us, that the opposite is true.  A strategic plan acts as an anchor and navigation system to prevent organizations from being tossed to and fro as the economy and social policies continue to gyrate. Planning is the tool that nonprofit managers and boards use to set the direction, guide decision-making, and provide the objective criteria used to evaluate opportunities. Without planning, too many nonprofit organizations find themselves chasing rabbits down the rabbit holes.

We don’t have the resources to plan: Face it.  Every nonprofit agency can complain that they have too few resources. I have heard more than once, “Planning takes time, money, and staffing and that diverts us from being able to meet our mission. We can’t afford to plan.” That thinking is as misguided as the high-school student who says, “If I drop out of school and go to work in construction, I will be earning money today. Investing in my education is a waste to time.” Can a kid like that get lucky and make it? Possibly.  However, statistically speaking, such thinking is the proverbial, “penny wise and pound foolish.” Planning is an investment that is undoubtedly a short-term cost, but, over time, is a powerful lever for organizational advantage.

We have been down that road before: The lamest of all excuses that a nonprofit leader or board can offer for not planning sounds something like this: “You know we did that strategic planning thing a few years ago. We even hired a consultant to help. Man that was a waste of time and money without any significant return on our investment. Once burned, twice shy.”  Of course, there are two sides to every story. On one side, the nonprofit needs to have realistic expectations of strategic planning, be motivated and committed to the planning process and equipped to do something with the plan that is developed.  On the other side of the equation, I know that there are lousy consultants offering oversimplified, naïve, or just plain bad advice to clients. Having a career as a manager before becoming a consultant, I once hired consultant whose services bordered on malpractice.  As a consultant I have been called in to rescue a strategic planning process that has gone south and have followed more than one consultant who sent a nonprofit client chasing the un-strategic and diversionary. Burned once? Be cautious rather than incapacitated the second time around (see this practical guidance).

We don’t know where to begin: The beauty of Google (and other search engines) is found in the fact that it places a world of information at our fingertips. The demonic curse of Google (and other search engines) is found in the fact that it places a world of information at our fingertips.  Search for “nonprofit strategic planning” and whoosh, information overload.  Literally hundreds of planning models, libraries of books with sometimes contradictory approaches, consultants willing to help your for $2,000 or $20,000 or, as I was once actually quoted by a consulting firm, “$200,000 is our lowest rate.”  Paralysis. Distrust. Cynicism.  Understandable. Forget Google.  Build on your own strengths.  If you have been successfully running an organization for a five, ten or more years, your agency is capable of strategic planning success. Need guidance and support in the process? Maybe. Using an outside facilitator to manage the planning process can be helpful (although it is doubtful that such guidance should cost you $200,000). That is a decision for the board and leadership to wrestle with. Claiming that one does not know where to begin? Simply an excuse.

My purpose in this article is not to write the definitive list of excuses for why northwest nonprofits reported such low numbers across the range of standard written nonprofit planning tools (again, M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust survey report).  The purpose of this article is to highlight the need for nonprofit leaders to recognize how, consciously or unconsciously, they can sabotage or stymie the organization’s potential by allowing excuses to justify not engaging in the process of reflective and strategic planning.  Investing in planning is required to frame and accelerate strategy and growth.  Effective nonprofits recognize the need for planning, prioritize and invest according. In the next article in this three-part series, I will shift to the positive reasons to engage in planning and offer practical ideas for creating a nonprofit culture that values and productively uses planning as a strategic organizational asset.


Photo Credit: Michael Gaida


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.