One of the dominant themes in my blog posts this year has been outlining dimensions of nonprofit strategy and, in my conversations with clients and potential clients, strategy is still the major theme.  A question that I have recently been pondering was asked by a colleague who had just gone through a strategic planning process.  His question was simple, “Okay, when you are all done and are looking at the final approved strategic plan, how do you know it is a good one?”  Unfortunately, while the “Checklist Manifesto” may be a popular business concept right now, I do not believe that there is one right answer to this question. However, one off from the checklist, is my belief that a team developing a strategic plan should establish external “ideals” against which they can reference their work. These ideals are the BIG ideas that frame the process and yet can sometimes get lost as planning teams wrestle with tactical objectives and operational details.  A working list of meta ideas might look like these:

  • Multiyear Funding: When the strategic plan is finished does it outline a clear pathway for developing an integrated approach to multiyear funding that provides stability to the organizations programs and infrastructure?
  • Capacity Building: When the plan is implemented will the capacity of the agency be strengthened?  Have we considered the operational systems and support required to ensure a healthy and growing organization?
  • Risk Taking: Does the plan lead us outside of a business as usual scenario in ways that challenge us to excel? Is the plan bold enough to encourage the agency take calculated (yet protected) risks to increase the impact of our programs and services?
  • Movement Building: Programs and services change lives while movements change communities.  Does our strategic plan reflect movement building that has the potential of leveraging change at the community level?
  • Making a Difference: Does our plan outline a pathway to demonstrate a clear and compelling impact? Will we be able to answer the question, “do we make a difference?”

Again, the list of “meta ideals” might differ from organization to organization but the common thread is that they are anchored to the core organizational values and aspirations. These ideals answer the question, “What do we as an agency want to become?” While the mission of today may be clear, the ideals drive the focus of the mission for tomorrow.  One agency might be ready to become a “game changer” while another agency’s big idea might be to reinvent their funding model to ensure sustainability.

If, in practice,  the use of BIG ideas is tackled at the front end of the planning process then the principles can then serve as the compass points during the planning process and sometimes, more importantly, revisiting  the ideals at the the end of the planning process can become useful final evaluative criterion to check the plan’s completeness. As I have worked with numerous teams on strategic planning, the process often (and ideally) starts large, aspirational and almost dreamy. As teams work to prioritize and define with some specificity, the end of the process is often mired in details — “now should be be projecting a .5 FTE or .8 FTE development associate?”  When the final copy is produced. the board has likely seen five or six iterations of the plan and the final vote is often, “yes. let’s be done with this monster.”  Rather than that sort of unceremonious end to a large investment of time, energy and passion, reflecting on how well the plan addresses the “big ideas” related to what an agency wants to  become can give energy and vitality to the approval and implementation of a strategic plan.

While this post may seem like it is discussing a tiny facet of strategic planning (and I agree it is), I am writing about it because it is a facet that it often overlooked.  By intentionally including reflection about “big ideas” in the strategic planning process, it can help frame, reinforce and energize a process. For any agency committing to a thoughtful strategic planning process the “Big Ideas” are critical tools to build and maintain focus and give a point of reference by which an agency can judge the authenticity of the finished strategic plan.

As always, your thoughts are welcome.


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.