Nonprofit Strategic Planning Agenda

Nonprofit Strategic Planning: Defining the Strategic Agenda

Note: This was the first series on strategic planning developed early in my consulting career.  Many of the principles hold true today.

The first post in this series outlined the importance of aligning the culture of your organization with the framework used for strategic planning.  In this post I want to discuss the importance of clarity of purpose and agenda before embarking on a strategic planning process.  Without a clear focus at the beginning of strategic planning more than one planning process has either fragmented or gotten mired down in unnecessary diversions.  Instead of taking on a single large planning process to manage every facet of your strategy, strategic planning should be considered as iterative planning specific to the identified strategic needs.  For example, I once was asked to serve as an informal advisor for an organization that made a decision to develop a strategic plan.*

During the assessment phase of the process, it became clear that the agency had a fairly strong strategic direction as evidenced by a clear mission and vision, brand recognition in the community, fully resourced program areas and consistent organizational growth over the last four years.  At the next layer down in the organization capacity, the agency had a low staff turnover rate, a clear job classification system, and supporting HR policies.  The agency also had strong financial books with supporting positive audits.  The one area of concern revealed in the assessment was that the board of directors of this nonprofit agency had experienced significant turnover and governance was fraying around the edges.  Based on this assessment, the strategic planning process shifted from originally conceived large-scale re-envisioning exercise that would have impacted the entire agency to a narrower strategic planning effort that focused on strategic board development.

Considering the strategic agenda is indeed a critical conversation related to strategic planning.  In addition to exploring what framework supports the culture of an agency, organizations need to assess the strategic domains and create a strategic agenda that will guide a strategic planning process.  If you reflect on the organizational domains of practice it becomes apparent that there is a broad range of focal points that can inform a strategic planning process.  Let’s consider a few of these organizational domains.

• Foundational Agency Capacity:  At the core, agencies grow and prosper based on a clear and bold mission, vision, goals, strategies and operating practices and performance outcomes.  For many organizations this capacity is established and enduring and, in the absence of a significant environmental change (e.g., the periodic disruptive technology in software and computer industries), these foundations will rarely be the primary agenda for strategic planning.

• Operating Infrastructure:  At a more tactical level, organizational systems include such functions as human resources, finance, business process, marketing, and governance that each has unique strategic needs as organizations grow and change. Growth, down-sizing and changes in the external environment all keep pressure on the operating infrastructure to adapt and continuously change.

• Service Delivery & Products:  Every organization that is healthy and growing strives to improve the delivery of services and products that supports the mission and vision of an organization. Having a strategic, performance improvement mindset about service delivery and products is critical to any organization. Active strategic agenda for managing improvement is critical to contemporary organization.

• Resource Development: Still another strategy domain is the volatile domain of revenue development.  How resources flow into an organization need to be considered from the perspectives of reliability, autonomy, concentration and diversification.  Unfortunately, as the recent brutal economic downturn has taught us, the resource development domain does not neatly fit into 3-5 year strategic planning cycle.  Managing resource development is more aptly described as a process of ongoing opportunity and risk management.

• Performance Measurement: In an age where advantage goes to those who demonstrate ongoing performance outcomes, thinking strategically abut how an organization measures success is increasingly a standard practice for organizations.  Investments increasingly come with demands to document performance.  Performance measurement, whether it is gauged as return-on-investment, changes in community-level social indicators or some other metric, is one more strategic domain that agencies need to consider in planning.

Organizational Crisis:  A final domain for strategy related to those challenges born out of an organizational crisis.  Some of these challenges or crises are predictable and come with some lead time.  For example, when an organization founder chooses to step out of a leadership role or a new large investment (like a grant in the nonprofit world) is secured. Other crises are caused by random and unpredictable events such as a lawsuit by an employee or an unexpected cut in revenues that force talks of merger.

Considered individually, each of these six strategic domains (and there are likely others) have the capacity to create, expand or narrow a strategic planning agenda.  When taken together, however, it becomes resource intensive and perhaps even daunting to imagine a single strategic planning process capable of adequately addressing all of these domains.  So as the concept of strategy is explored, even as casually as we have in this blog, we can see that critical step in considering a strategic planning process is to define the strategic agenda.  What is the purpose of the strategic plan?  What domain or domains are you addressing and for what purpose?  Without such consideration the strategic planning process can quickly become a consuming task splitting efforts in multiple directions.   “We need help creating a strategic plan,” is not the complete statement but rather it is the stem that is followed by “for the purpose of….”  The focus, clarity and agenda of a well planned strategic planning process needs to be carefully considered before embarking on the planning journey.

In building the case for strategic planning, we move from identifying a planning framework that culturally fits with your organization and now considers the important question of defining the strategic agenda.  However, before embarking on a strategic planning process there are still two more conceptual overlays that include momentum and accountability, which will be the subjects of the next two posts.

*some of the details of the case study have been changed.

~ Mark

Photo Credit: TeroVesalainen

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.