At the beginning of any strategic planning process I lead, this is the question I pose to the nonprofit’s leadership: “What are the key strategic questions facing your nonprofit?”
Nonprofit leaders who want to plan for the future must first articulate what it is they need to decide about that future. A strategic question is a big picture, two roads diverged in the woods kind of question. Shall we go this way, or shall we go that way? They are not the tactical “How do we get this done?” questions, but rather the “What should we be doing?” kinds of questions.
So my first step in strategic planning is to lead the board and staff to create a laundry list of the big picture questions they want to be able to answer by the end of the strategic planning process.
These are questions like:
What people or groups are we seeking to benefit or influence?
It is absolutely essential that your nonprofit get crystal clear about who your target population is in order to better create change for those targets, more effectively encourage funders to invest in what you are doing, put your limited resources to their highest and best use, and, most importantly, to really understand how best to create social change. Your target populations are those people who you are uniquely positioned to benefit or influence and in doing so will move you closer to achieving your nonprofit’s long-term vision for change. When you get clear about who you are best positioned to benefit or influence, you will be better able to direct your precious resources (staff, board, money, volunteers) toward achieving that ultimate goal. The clearer and more specific you can get about exactly who your target population(s) are, the more effective you will be at creating change for them.
Which programs or activities should we cut?
Often nonprofit leaders are so big hearted that over the years they take on more and more programs and services, regardless of whether those additional programs make strategic sense or fit with the core competencies of their organization. So if you run a nonprofit with a long list of programs that don’t necessarily align with each other or with what you do best, you may want (during your strategic planning process) to ask which programs should stay and which should go.
What social issues are we working to address?
Sometimes a nonprofit’s board and staff are at odds about (or at least have never really decided) the exact list of social problems their nonprofit wants to address. A nonprofit is typically created because its founder recognizes some injustice or disparity and she wants to address that problem. But over time, a nonprofit’s leadership might take on additional issues, or the issues they were formed to address might change or grow, or other competing groups might launch to address similar issues. So to chart a future direction, board and staff together must become crystal clear about exactly which social problems they believe are in their nonprofit’s purview.
Given what others working on the same issues are doing, where should we be focusing our efforts?
You cannot create a long-term strategy in a vacuum. Therefore you must get outside your walls and understand what other people and groups working on similar social issues are doing. And then you may need to determine what impact those efforts have on your nonprofit’s future direction and where can you have the most effective results.
What changed conditions should result from our work?
This is the ultimate strategic question because it forces everyone to articulate why your nonprofit exists. The changed social conditions that you desire (in other words, your desired outcomes) help you articulate what you ultimately hope your nonprofit will accomplish. And by articulating that, you can then work backwards to determine how you will operate, what programs you will run, who you will work with, how you will be funded, etc. Your desired outcomes serve as your nonprofit’s guiding light. And they hold your nonprofit accountable both internally and externally.
What is the most sustainable financial model for the outcomes we want to achieve?
All money is not equal and in order to create sustainable social change you have to figure out how to attract enough and the right kinds of money to achieve your outcome goals. So as part of your strategic planning process, you may need to figure out what your financial model should look like given the answers to all of your other strategic questions.
These are just a sampling of potential key strategic questions. Your unique mission and operating model will necessitate that you create your own custom list of key strategic questions.
Once you have that list, the purpose of a good strategic planning process then is to set about answering those questions in an evidence-based, decisive way. And once you have answers to all of your key strategic questions, you can craft a compelling, effective strategic plan that board, staff and supporters will be excited to bring to fruition.
If you want to learn more about the strategic planning process I use with my clients, check out my Strategic Planning page.
Photo Credit: Nick Page