Nonprofit Strategy Uncertain Times

Nonprofit Strategy for Uncertain Times

How should nonprofits be preparing for the uncertain times ahead?  That was the question of the Spring Nonprofit Forum held last month and hosted by Pacific Continental Bank, McDonald Jacobs, PC, and Durham & Bates Insurance. The forum was held in Portland Oregon, and I had the privilege of facilitating the group discussion with a panel that included Carmen Rubio, Executive Director of the Latino Network and Kris Soebroto, Program Director of Village Gardens. In this article, I would like to offer some highlights of the Forum and offer some additional resources.

The foundation for the discussion was the reality that there are a number of strategic challenges confronting the nonprofit sector. I have been writing about this theme for some time (see here). The premise of the forum was that most nonprofits need to prepare for both program disruptions and budget cuts that will change the nonprofit landscape over the next few years. Without considering and planning for the potential scenarios that may lie ahead, nonprofit leaders and board members are not effectively carrying out their strategic and fiscal responsibilities and are placing their organizations at risk.

We framed the conversation as an approach to planning that includes three stages. The stages are designed to help a nonprofit think sequentially through the planning process. The planning process ends with asking hard questions and making decisions.  In short, the framework looks like this. 

1. Preparation: The first stage of the planning is to focus on getting organized. Too often nonprofits jump into planning before they are ready. I believe that planning is only as strong as the preparation you do. Gathering data, advisors, understanding trends, and informing key stakeholders are part of getting ready to plan.  Once you are ready to plan, it is then important to review where you are today.

2. Review Your Foundations: This second stage of the planning process is a review your existing foundations to help you focus on your current strategy. For those on the leading edge of change, this might simply mean picking up the well worn and annotated working copy of your agency’s strategic plan that is on the corner of your desk. For those of you who are rummaging through your files or shared drive to find your current strategic plan, it might mean committing to a half day or full day strategy review process with your board and/or staff members. If you are among the half (or more) of nonprofits that do not have a written strategic plan (see here), you may combine this stage with the next stage and commit the resources to develop a strategic plan.

3. Stress-Test Your Strategy: Once you establish your strategic foundations, it is important to assess the durability of your strategy against the possible scenarios that might unfold. I have coined to the concept of a strategy “stress test,” that is a thoughtful exploration that may take several planning sessions to work through. The investment of time (and resources) that you put into thinking about the future will pay dividends by helping you to be more resilient and adaptable as the future unfolds (see how we can help).

Once you prepare, revisit your foundation and stress test your strategy, it is time to act. Asking, “what now?” leads to developing a proactive plan and acting on it. Uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction. Whether you are focusing on your core, choosing to scale up (or down), acquire, merge (or spin-off) programs, or restructure your operations, it is critical that you not only plan to act but actually implement your strategy.

With this article, I am ending my series on courageous thinking for nonprofits. As I said near the beginning of this series, courage belongs to those nonprofits that are looking towards the future and offensively investing in their strategic position before the east winds blow. It is my contention that the time to invest in strategy is now because looking at the horizon, we can see the east winds gathering speed, and we know that there is a storm coming to the nonprofit sector.

This topic is so important, I have also prepared a free toolkit that expands this brief article. Request a download the free 20-page Nonprofit Strategy for a Changing Environment Toolkit. Email us or  Click Here

As always, your thoughts are welcome.



PS: If you need a strategic partner to help in your planning efforts, Contact us for a free initial conversation.


Photo Credit: Evan Kirby

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.