Strategic Planning

The term “strategic planning” covers a multitude of activities. Used broadly, it indicates almost anything to which a nonprofit devotes its resources in planning for the future. Above all, this means time, people, and money.

Out of this potent mix should come ideas, resourcefulness, inventiveness, imagination, and practical schemes to make things happen.

The planning may take many forms, be a long process or a short one, be extremely comprehensive, or be focused on a major strategic issue.

Whatever the scope or focus of the strategic plan, the outcome of this process should be a set of actionable decisions. These might be concerned with almost any aspect of the organization, but here is a basic framework:

  • Why: its reason for existing
  • Where: the environment in which it operates
  • What: what it intends to accomplish
  • Which: for which beneficiaries
  • How: in what manner.

The strategic plan will be used to set goals, allocate resources, and measure success within a specified time frame.

Project Process

The process typically includes the following steps:

  • Initiate and agree on a planning process and the expected outcomes/deliverables.
  • Conduct a basic “diagnostic” analysis (sometimes called a situation analysis).
  • Identify key issues for which decisions are required.
  • Develop alternative scenarios.
  • Facilitate and document.
  • Discuss implementation and operational implications of the choices that have been made.

Initiate and agree on a planning process and the expected outcomes/deliverables.

  • Agree who will be involved at the client organization.
  • Agree how much time should be spent on each part of the work plan.
  • Agree who the stakeholders are.
  • Consult stakeholders and integrate their input.
  • Decide on area of operation to receive the benefit of the action plan.
  • Agree on expected project deliverables

Conduct a basic “diagnostic” analysis (sometimes called a situation analysis).

  • Review past plans and internal data, and interview key constituents.
  • Discuss key issues facing the organization.
  • Assess the organization’s strengths and resource gaps using tools like SWOT, SORG, or Six Forces.

Identify key issues for which decisions are required.

  • List potential steps that would help the organization move ahead.
  • Identify a key goal that would help the organization reach its full potential.
  • Clarify priorities in reaching these goals.

Develop alternative scenarios.

  • Evaluate the pros and cons of each.
  • Examine the financial implications of each.

Facilitate and document.

  • List available choices.
  • State decisions in writing.
  • Clarify trade-offs, so everyone understands what will and will not be delivered.

Discuss implementation and operational implications of the choices that have been made.

  • Share the plan with the board, staff, funders, and other stakeholders, and get their feedback.
  • Discuss and evaluate feedback, incorporate if appropriate.
  • Determine if other preparations need to be made before implementing the plan.
  • Assess whether the capacity of the organization is equal to implementing the plan.
  • A “business plan” or “operating plan” sometimes follows the “strategic plan.”

Likely Deliverables

Statement of Strategy

  • This should have the clarity and forcefulness of an action plan, and be written in clear, active language.
  • If there is more than one strategy, the list should read like a coherent set of commitments or actions leading towards one stated goal.

Final Presentation

  • Choose a format that is most easily accessible for all (e.g. written document or Powerpoint presentation).
  • Design presentation as a summing up of all of the above, keeping in mind all the stakeholders.
  • The document will also capture the plan for future reference.
  • A simple plan, which can be most easily implemented, is often best (target length: 2-3 pages).

Best Practices

Four elements are common to most successful strategic planning exercises:

  • Coming to an agreement with the client on the scope of the project and the deliverables.
  • Leaving enough time in the process to clearly articulate the project’s intended impact.
  • Articulating a clear view of how best to achieve that impact.
  • Making sure all important stakeholders are included in the decisions.

Clarity up front is worth the extra time. Without extra attention to the agreement, the work may not satisfy the clients’ needs or expectations or may not involve the right stakeholders sufficiently. Without carefully articulating goals and means (either as a prerequisite or as a project deliverable), it is nearly impossible to make sound strategic decisions.

Agreement on scope and deliverables is achieved through dialogue and written confirmation with the client before the work begins. Clarity about the desired impact is usually achieved through a series of meetings with the CEO, key managers, and/or board members once the work begins.

Helpful Hints

  • During any kick-off meeting, participants should share experiences (both positive and negative) about previous strategic planning efforts. This allows biases to be heard early and prevent past pitfalls from recurring.
  • Good strategic planning is not about a document. Many strategic plans sit on shelves. Some documentation is useful because it allows for sharing key decisions with key stakeholders, but the decisions are far more important than the style or format of the document.
  • Strategic planning is not a substitute for good leadership. If the CEO, board, or others are not good at articulating their vision, making decisions, or leading people, then a plan will have little value. However, the planning process can help to clarify a vision. If it can prompt key decisions that will guide the organization, then the strategic planning process will have fulfilled an important purpose.

by Jan Leeman, MBA ’95

Related Questions and Answers

Recommended Reading

Strategic Management for Nonprofit Organizations (1995) by Susan M. Oster, Oxford University Press

Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations (1995) by John M. Bryson, Jossey-Bass

Beyond Fundraising: New Strategies for Nonprofit Innovation and Investment, 2nd ed. (2005) Wiley, Johnson

“Zeroing in on Impact”, Susan Colby, Nan Stone, and Paul Carttar, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2004, 25-33