Modern Day Nonprofit Strategic Planning

I was invited by David Harrison to speak to a crowd of Evans School students last Saturday about “the modern day practice of strategic planning.”   The invitation was a lovely:  not a how-to lecture, but a chance to speak about my philosophy and approach to planning, and how planning works or doesn’t in real life.

As a mission-driven business, I am always thinking about impact and trying to determine how to provide services to my nonprofit clients that truly “help nonprofits thrive” and achieve their missions more effectively.  This has led to some thorny conversations with myself and others about whether strategic planning really adds value.  The benefits of a well-crafted planning process include:

  • Teaches a group of board and staff leaders how to think strategically together
  • Helps a group with limited resources to prioritize areas of focus and abandon less fruitful investments of time and energy
  • Helps to articulate the organization’s theory of change—for themselves and potential supporters
  • Satisfies funder expectations, and allows the nonprofit to demonstrate that they have their act together

Conventional planning may be too rigid for the rapidly changing world we live in.  Plans made a few years ago during boom times have in some cases proven irrelevant during the current recession.  Radical adaptation has been required of all of us.  Yet, we still need a guided process for thinking together, setting our sails and tracking our progress.  For this reason, I recommend that nonprofits complete a high-level plan with a strategic framework for the coming three years, complemented by more detailed and measurable action plans for specific initiatives. 

For example, an organization might set three strategic priorities in support of their mission and vision:  expansion of their program to a new geographic area, building fundraising capacity and board recruitment and development.  In year 1, building fundraising capacity might be the “big question” facing the organization (David La Piana in his book Nonprofit Strategy Revolution suggests that nonprofits work on just one priority at a time to ensure a clear focus and mustering of all the organization’s resources).  In order to be successful in increasing fundraising capacity, the organization will need a detailed, grounded action plan laying out realistic strategies, timelines, resources needed (staffing, new database, training, etc.) and expected results.  The organization is more likely to achieve their goals if there are clear roles and milestones to monitor progress.

Where do I as a consultant fit in?   I am challenging myself to streamline the planning process so that organizations have time, energy and budget left for the action planning and implementation phase.  I hope that I will be able to assist clients more often with action planning, developing a board dashboard to monitor progress easily and aligning resources needed to execute the planning priorities.

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