Are you the proud leader of a nonprofit organization? There’s a good chance you’ve heard the word, “strategic planning,” at some point in your career. If you’re not familiar, here’s a breakdown: it’s a practice that can help you address the realities of the present and anticipate changes in the future. Like mapmaking, planning can help you pinpoint where your organization stands now and identify a destination for its future, along with a route for leading your team to success.
The best time for you to plan for tomorrow is today — nonprofit organizations that develop and implement strategic plans typically are more successful than those that don’t.
Why aren’t more nonprofits engaging in strategic planning? There are a number of reasons, some of which can be attributed to a few myths and misperceptions.
The Top Five Strategic Planning Myths
1. “It takes too much time.” Many leaders procrastinate strategic planning because the task seems daunting. The truth is, the process can take as little as several weeks to a few months. Keep in mind that time spent on planning is not time wasted. To the contrary, it’s an investment in the future of your organization and the least you can do to ensure its survival.
2. “Our operations and community are too small for planning.” Strategic planning is simply a management tool designed to help your organization do a better job. It can be a valuable practice for any organization, no matter its size, geography or funding model. Too many organizations get caught up in sifting through financial details or rehashing past plans; some feel compelled to churn out a big, bold strategy when it’s not necessary. If your organization is small, your plan doesn’t have to be overly complicated; it just needs to reflect your community and priorities.
3. “We’re doing fine — why do we need to plan?” Planning in periods of crisis is difficult (if not impossible), and waiting until you need to choose the right path is far too late. Without investing the proper time and focus in the planning process, you’re liable to overlook key information, which can result in poor decision-making. The smoother the planning process, the clearer your vision — when things are calm and business is good.
4. “Strategic planning has no impact on our funding.” Whether you realize it or not, strategic planning does have some impact on your short- and long-term funding. If your planning is done well, timely and ahead of a crisis, that impact will be a positive one!
5. “Planning for the future and all its unknowns is impractical.” It’s true that no one can predict the future, but bear in mind that the typical strategic planning horizon can stretch over one to five years — it’s not a 20-year timeline. There are plenty of “known” factors you can and should address through strategic planning to create the future you want for your organization. Put it this way: if you neglect to plan for the future, you will allow the future to dictate your organization’s destiny.
Now that you’re familiar with the common myths surrounding strategic planning, it’s time for you to overcome them!
Here are six keys to conducting effective strategic planning:
1. Evaluate your mission, vision and values.
Do your mission, vision and value statements reflect your current realities and culture? The statements you establish for your organization should be consistent, aligned, flexible and concise. You need these foundations to lead your organization into the uncertain future. Your vision should be engaging, and you should share it beyond your internal team, especially with your larger community of constituents.
2. Conduct community needs and environmental assessments.
To conduct good planning, you need to do your homework: collect and analyze internal and external data about your organization. Many operational and financial indicators hold clues to a solid strategy. It’s also vital to know what your community needs and values.
At Wipfli, we help our nonprofit clients assess their respective communities’ needs and use that information to conduct TOWS (threats, opportunities, weaknesses and strengths) analyses that are specific to their organizations. Learn More
3. Conduct strategy and goal evaluation sessions.
The planning process is one of active exploration and learning. Appointing a strategy team of management, staff, board members and community advisors to help design goals for your organization encourages inclusion and increases buy-in dramatically.
The group should investigate ideas for strategies and goals that are consistent with your organization’s vision and culture; they should also take advantage of known opportunities and strengths. By the end of step three, the team can narrow its list to the top three-to-seven strategic goals for the entire organization. An experienced and certified facilitator can add immeasurable value here; he or she can help ensure that the right people are on the team, and that everyone is focused on the right details and outcomes.
4. Develop an action plan.
To implement and reach your strategic goals, you need an action plan that can help direct your team and lead change. Far too many organizations create a good plan that ends up sitting on the shelf. Involve your key stakeholders in the action planning process, and work together to define roles, assign responsibilities and develop realistic timelines.
Your facilitator should help streamline communication, lead change planning and institute follow-up practices to ensure engagement and follow-through.
5. Implement the plan.
Success is all about follow-through. It’s imperative that you execute the action plan, hold your leaders and teams accountable, provide a process for feedback and ensure that your strategy team meets regularly. Most plans involve some mix of new approaches and a realignment of what the organization is already doing well. Good implementation involves communicating what new expectations are in place, what you expect to stay the same and what practices need to stop happening in your organization.
6. Evaluate the strategic plan and your progress.
The planning process should be ongoing. Meet with your strategy team at least once every year to review the plan, determine whether it’s still relevant and ensure your organization is on the right course. The team should also examine any new developments — both internal and external — that may require changes to the strategy.