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The Problem with Strategic Planning

By Nell Edgington

The term “strategic plan” has become so misused and abused in the nonprofit sector that it has almost become meaningless. So many organizations have undergone a poor strategic planning process. But the fact remains that to be truly effective at creating social change a nonprofit organization MUST have a strategy for the future and a plan for how they will get there.

There are some very clear ways that a good strategic plan differs from a poor one:

  • A good strategic plan starts from an in-depth understanding of the outside community marketplace in which the nonprofit operates (trends in clients, funders, competitors, etc). Whereas a bad strategic plan is created in a vacuum among only board and staff. One nonprofit told me that at a board retreat years ago, board members were asked to write their goals for the organization on post-it notes, which were then tacked all over the room and voted on. And like that, their  strategic plan was born.

  • A good strategic plan forces the organization to articulate its value proposition, i.e. how the organization uniquely uses community inputs to create significant social value (change to a social problem). A poor strategic plan fails to articulate a value proposition and assumes that everyone outside the organization loves it and understands its value just as much as everyone inside the organization.

  • A good strategic plan puts everything on the table and allows no sacred cows. Board members with pet interests are reigned in and staff members who are not contributing are encouraged to realign themselves with the new plan. A poor strategic plan only deals with the easy or non-controversial issues and leaves the difficult questions aside.

  • A good strategic plan makes sure that the strategy for programs is aligned with the organization’s business and financial model so that the resulting strategic plan includes programs, financing and operations in an integrated way. A poor strategic plan focuses only on programs and assumes that the money will somehow follow.

  • A good strategic plan includes a tactical plan so that the broad goals are broken down into individual steps to get there. This allows the organization to monitor and revise the plan on an on-going basis. A poor strategic plan has no tactical plan or monitoring system attached to it. Once approved, staff or board don’t see it again and it certainly doesn’t drive the day-to-day activity of the organization.

  • A good strategic plan is inspiring and compelling to potential funders. It sets forth a bold vision for the future and a specific road map for getting there, which inspires confidence and investment. A poor strategic plan is boring, maintains the status quo, and elicits only nominal external support.

It’s not enough to go through the “strategy” motions. A real strategic plan is bold, compelling, tactical, well-financed, integrated and inspiring. It gets everyone (staff, board, funders, volunteers, clients) moving forward in a common direction from which real change flows.

If you want to learn more about the strategic planning process I take Social Velocity clients through, go here.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

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20 Comments to The Problem with Strategic Planning

Anthony Goulet
May 25, 2011

Excellent article! So true, so true! I will be printing your article off and handing it out at a meeting we have next week. We will be discussing ideas for moving the organization forward. You have some key points in this article that everyone interested in true organizational leadership needs to hear.

Nell Edgington
May 25, 2011

Thanks Anthony! I’m glad the article was helpful. Let me know if you have questions or would like more information as you continue your discussions about the next steps for your organization.

Martin Harshberger
May 25, 2011

I couldn’t agree more, strategic planning is critical, and it indeed has gotten a bad name in most organizations. Effective strategic planning is a process like any other. Most organizations really don’t know how to develop a sound strategy, it becomes more of a “wish list”.

Strategy execution is even more of an issue and it’s also a process. I’ve written extensively on both.

I read once that a sound strategic plan has to include what NOT to do.

Nell Edgington
May 25, 2011

Yes, I agree Martin. A good strategic plan has to include filters for deciding what not to do, and to that point those filters have to be flexible enough to adapt to the ever-changing external environment, while still staying true to the ultimate mission and goals of the organization.

prateeksha sharma
May 26, 2011

That is a very insightful article indeed. Thanks for the effort of putting it together and sharing here Nell. We are a new organization and we are just shaping our strategic plan; so this is timely for me to have gone through it.
I just wonder how much one can plan into the future assuming you are still really small and not yet reached that point in your life when you are knocking too many doors. Does it mean one can just put all their realistic ideas on-board?
And how frequently is it reasonable one re-visit a plan/modify it/ change it completely. We are still a very small team too, but that can change in a short time as I see it, assuming we take some bold initiatives.

Naomi Lippin
May 26, 2011

Agree with your comments about what’s vital to develop robust and relevant strategy – your model is very much like the one we are currently using at Girl Scouts of the USA – a model called Strategic Learning created by Willie Piertersen. Have you studied with him or read any of his books?

Nell Edgington
May 26, 2011


You raise some great questions. First, no matter the size or age of the organization, it is always difficult to plan into the future because things can and do change so rapidly. So a good strategic plan needs to have good filters contained in it so that an organization can respond to those changing circumstances and update and revise the plan as needed. A strategic plan should be reviewed, updated, modified on at least a monthly basis. It should never be something that simply sits on a shelf.
And to your second question, I don’t think a nonprofit is ever too small not to have a plan in place. No matter what you are trying to accomplish, you will not be able to do so unless you’ve figured out where you fit in the larger market, what your revenue model is, what social impact you want to have, etc. All of these questions are answered in a strategic plan.

Nell Edgington
May 26, 2011


I haven’t read Willie’s books. Do you have one that you particularly recommend? I’d love to take a look. Thanks!

May 26, 2011

Well said!

Another huge issue with strategic planning in the non-profit sector is whether or not the organization is functionally ready to undertake such a planning process.

I’ve been through a couple of strategic planning processes with operationally dysfunctional organizations. They’ve tried to use the strategic planning process as a way to both fix the dysfunction AND move from point A to point B programmatically.

It’s really two separate issues. If you’ve got a dysfunctional organization, you have to fix that first if you have any hope of a strategic planning process being successful.

Teresa Trost
May 26, 2011

Thanks for the great information. I too plan to use this to help bring the board to a better understanding of what strategic planning really is. I do invite your comments on how to successfully bring board members to the table without their biases and pet projects. This seems to be an area that is struggled with.

[…] Continue reading: The Problem with Strategic Planning. […]

Nell Edgington
May 26, 2011


I don’t think you can bring board members to the table without their biases and pet projects, rather you have to help them understand, through the process of creating the plan, that those pet projects and biases are not in the best interest of the larger organization and the impact it is trying to achieve. The problem that you identify is a huge reason why I encourage nonprofits to have an outsider manage the strategic planning process. An outside person who is skilled in managing politics, egos and process can navigate those choppy waters and help everyone reach a final direction that is best for the organization (and that everyone is excited about and invested in), not just the individual actors within it.

Nell Edgington
May 26, 2011


I absolutely agree with you, an organization has to be ready for a strategic planning process. On the Social Velocity Tools page ( there is a tip sheet called “Is Your Nonprofit Ready for a Strategic Plan?” that serves as a checklist to determine if your nonprofit is in a solid enough place to begin the planning process.

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[…] The term strategic plan has become so misused and abused in the nonprofit sector that it has almost become meaningless.  […]

[…] “What are the financial implications of this decision?” And when you are developing a new strategic plan, make sure you spend as much time on program goals as you do on financial goals. Money should never […]

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