Four Outcomes of Nonprofit Strategic Planning
In the first article (here) of this series, I asserted that nonprofit organizations avoid strategic thinking and planning at their own peril and in the second article (here), I discussed the excuses that get in the way of strategic planning. In this final article, I want to talk about four reasons that nonprofit strategy and planning is core to nonprofit success and end with some ideas for how to get started thinking about planning.
If you Google “benefits of strategic planning,” you would find dozens of generic lists about why strategic planning is important. This article is not simply a list. It is a way of thinking about planning. In my 20 plus year professional career and six years as a nonprofit consultant, I have seen repeatedly that investing in strategic planning results in four measurable improvements in nonprofit management.
1. Strategy Defines Relevancy: First and foremost, a structured process of strategic planning forces your agency to think about your significance and relevancy today. “Today” is the operative word in that sentence. Legacy matters very little. Routine and intentional planning puts your organization in a contemporary context. Differentiation and relevance must be strategically re-envisioned as an organization grows and matures. The reality is that the nonprofit ecology continuously changes, the developmental task of your organization changes over time, and the demands of accountability and demonstrated impact continues to grow. All of these reasons require your nonprofit to be intentional and reflective about strategy.
2. Strategy Creates Focus: In addition to defining relevancy, strategic planning creates focus. As I wrote in my last article, many nonprofits fail to plan because they feel that the world is moving so fast that strategic planning is obsolete. Change is constant and unrelenting at times but, without strategy, many agencies are ever reacting to change as though they are being tossed about, almost out of control. A strategic plan offers a focus and anchor in the middle of the ever-changing environment. Strategy becomes the basis of managing change and framing opportunities. Without strategy, I have seen more than one organization drift towards (and sometimes cross) the edge of their mission. Planning is “mission drift” prevention. Planning offers focus, and is the “external voice” that keeps your nonprofit leaning forward in a consistent and intentional direction.
3. Strategy Drives Action: Without a strategic plan, organizational action can be fragmented, inefficient and even wasteful.On more than one occasion, I have seen a strategic plan drive the reallocation of organizational priorities. Even more common, is the use of a strategic plan to lay the foundation for operational and performance planning. Indeed, “driving action” is the one of the most important outcomes of strategic planning.
4. Strategy Increases Accountability and Transparency: Accountability and transparency (along with demonstrated impact) are increasingly prerequisite to gaining the attention of those willing to support and invest in your nonprofit. While I have written about accountability and transparency before (see here), it is important to connect accountability and transparency back to strategy. Without a strategic plan, it is difficult to demonstrate to anyone that your nonprofit is on track towards achieving great things. Doing good works is no longer sufficient to prove your worth and increasingly funders and donors want to know are you “on track.” On track, needs to be benchmarked against what strategy that not only demonstrates your “today” but also where will you be two years from now. Such data is hard to produce without a plan.
Following, the line of thinking in this article series: a) defined why planning is important, b) dealt with the excuses that keep you from planning, and c) reviewed four outcomes that make nonprofit strategic planning imperative. To complete the series, I want to offer a short list of ideas for moving forward with planning.
Start a conversation: The board and staff should be engaged in a conversation about the need for strategic planning. As a starting point for this conversation, you might review the role strategic planning has played or could play in your organization’s development. Review this article and create the organization-driven reasons why an investment in planning would benefit your nonprofit.
Dismantle Excuses: Review the excuses for not planning and add to the list others that might be unique to your organization. Then, for each excuse, brainstorm how the excuse can be turned into a solution, or (at least), taken off of the table as an impediment.
Consider Your Planning Assets: It is my opinion that most nonprofit agencies with a track record of success, likely have the planning and business acumen to develop a strategic plan. I am not one who believes that external expertise is required to develop a solid strategic plan. However, as you think about strategic planning, the drivers of a successful planning process are process expertise, time, and impartiality. While many nonprofit organizations’ possess all three attributes, the challenge is to assure that you can align all three for the entire course of the planning process. If your agency can’t commit expertise, time, impartiality (and objectivity), you might consider hiring a consultant that can bring deep skills and experience in facilitation and process. I have previously written practical guidance on finding a consultant (see here).
Fully Resource the Process: Many nonprofit organizations stumble when they consider that they might have to invest 60, 80, or 100 hours over 3-6 months in developing a strategic plan — especially when they consider paying a consultant to facilitate the process. To help given agencies’ perspective on this topic, I have asked more than one executive director and/or board of directors, “Is an annual financial audit important to your organization and is it worth the time and expense?” The answer is typically, “Of course it is. Good governance depends on it.” I follow up, “Do you ever try to conduct just half an audit? You know, just hire a bookkeeper, and only give them half of the time they need to do the job right?” Typically, the point in made without further discussion. You have a choice, Fast, Cheap, and Done Correctly. Choose two. If “Done Correctly” is the non-negotiable then strategic planning is likely not going to be fast, or it is not going to be without cost.
Step up the stairs: Ideas, especially large and daunting ones, must be followed by action. I once heard it said that “it is not enough to stare up the steps – we must step up the stairs.” Strategic planning is an investment that, done correctly, leads to a significant return on investment. Indeed, the most successful nonprofits I have worked with are those who adopt an intentional management culture and practice of planning and action.
In 2009, I began my consulting practice with the firm belief that many nonprofit organizations were hungry to invest in their core infrastructure, strategy and performance. Now in my sixth year, having worked with over forty organizations, I am convinced that a focus on the strategic is imperative. Yesterday’s thinking and keeping your organization on “solid ground” is not enough any more. Organizations need to plan and act strategically, build on strengths, and myopically think about relevancy, focus, action, and accountability. Those that embrace this ethos are leaders both today and tomorrow and indeed, nonprofit strategic planning is at the heart of this leadership ethos. So what are you waiting for?
Photo Credit: Wolfgang Borchers