As I continue to meet with nonprofit organizations, it amazes me how few have a detailed, comprehensive strategic plan. And as I write that I can imagine many rolling their eyes at the dreaded words: strategic plan. Why is planning such a dirty word? I know it can be time-consuming and involve tremendous effort, but the payoff, if done well, can be enormous: better program results, more effective use of resources, improved staff morale, more engaged board of directors, and so on. And in these days when resources are tighter than ever, a solid, well-thought out plan ensures that every last resource (financial, staff, volunteer) are used most effectively.
I realize that much of the lack of affection for strategic planning comes from the fact that it can be an organic process. And sometimes a strategic planning process can waste a lot of time but result in very little. Or, if it does result in a plan, that plan sits on bookshelves gathering dust.
A real, successful strategic plan lays out a clear path over a future period (3-5 years) with concrete steps to get there. Then, the plan is revisited, measured, updated by all involved monthly, if not daily. In essence a good strategic plan is very simple: this is where we want to be, this is how we are going to get there, now get to work.
So here is my suggested strategic planning process. I will preface this with my bias that an outsider should be involved in some of the facilitation of this process. If a staff or board member facilitates there will be a bias to the process and the results will be suspect. An objective third party can ask the hard questions that others within the organization are afraid to, make sure that discussions stay on track, keep the end goal always in sight, and ensure that an organization doesn’t just settle back into their normal way of doing things.
There are 8 basic steps to a good strategic planning process:
- Conduct a SWOT: strengths and weaknesses (of the internal organization) and opportunities and threats (facing the organization from external circumstances) among staff, board, and other key constituents to the organization.
- Do some research on your competitors (those providing similar services in the community) and your consumers (funders and clients) in order to understand trends and reactions to those trends. This will help you determine how your organization needs to react in the coming years.
- Revisit/refine the vision and mission of the organization. These two things are very different, but are often confused. The vision of the organization is the future reality in the external world that the organization would like to see, for example: “An end to homelessness.” It isn’t necessarily achievable, but it is what the organization is striving to make happen. A mission is how the organization is working towards that vision. It describes the impact point and what the organization exists to do, for example: “To move the homeless population of Phoenix off the streets through access to education, healthcare and job training.”
- Create 3-5 broad goals for the organization in the specific timeframe of the plan. What is it that you want to accomplish in the next X years that will help you achieve your mission? More than 5 goals are too much for staff and board to focus on.
- Break each of the 3-5 broad goals into activities, or steps to get there. What is it going to take to make each goal happen? What are the specific activities that need to occur?
- Create a timeline with deliverables, people responsible and due dates for each activity.
- Create an electronic, interactive format for the timeline so that each staff member can update their piece of the plan on a regular basis.
- Monitor and measure achievement of the deliverables and the overall goals at least quarterly, and revise the plan as needed.
The key to a successful strategic plan is getting staff and board members involved early and often. That is not to say that the entire board and staff should participate in each step of the process. Rather, create a team to lead the process and then find ways throughout to get feedback from others (surveys, retreats, lunches, meetings, etc.).
Finally, a good strategic plan doesn’t have to be long, arduous and difficult to comprehend. To the contrary, the more basic and simple you can make it, the better. The end goal is that everyone in the organization will understand the overall plan and how their efforts fit into it. With everyone on the same page marching toward a shared vision success can be achieved. And those scarce resources will be made to reach even farther.