An organization that is growing and hopes to sustain that growth needs a set of strategies to guide its program development, build a solid financial foundation, and prepare for challenges that lie ahead. In other words, it needs a strategic plan. Simply put, a strategic plan is a vision of your organization's future and the basic steps required to achieve that future. A good plan should include goals and objectives, desired outcomes, metrics for measuring your progress, timelines, and budgets.
Although the ultimate goal of the strategic planning process is to develop a plan, the value of the exercise often lies in the process itself. Strategic planning affords stakeholders in an organization the opportunity to learn more about the organization, to share their perceptions of its strengths and weaknesses, and to discuss critical issues affecting, or likely to affect, the organization in the future. The process should be designed to generate decisions arrived at by consensus. Single-person planning, while efficient, almost always eliminates the opportunity to distribute ownership of the plan — and, by extension, responsibility for the organization's future — among key stakeholders. In contrast, a consensual approach is likely to ensure that key stakeholders believe in the organization's vision of the future and are committed to achieving it.
Step One: Getting Started. Not every organization needs the in-depth approach required to create a formal strategic plan; in many cases, a two-page action plan to get you through the next eighteen months is sufficient. This is especially true of grassroots organizations, all-volunteer groups, and nonprofits in the start-up phase.
Once stakeholders in an organization have decided that a formal strategic plan is called for, the first thing you need to do is to plan to plan. Form a planning team. The team should include your board chair and/or ranking board leader, your CEO or executive director, key staff members, and, when appropriate, community leaders. You may also want to include other stakeholders such as long-time program volunteers, vendors, and staff or board members from partnering organizations. If possible, choose your team members for their ability to collaborate. Be wary of stakeholders who seem to have an individual agenda, or who hold fast to predetermined notions.
Next, the team needs to establish an agenda for its first meeting. Topics of discussion should include:
1) Why do we need a strategic plan? Maybe you're a still-young organization struggling to gain traction. Maybe you're facing a critical issue or a changed environment for your services. Or maybe you simply want to continue the momentum developed under your current plan. Whatever your situation, before you can plan effectively you need to understand the reason why you are planning.
2) How far out should we plan? Not too many years ago, the typical strategic plan looked out five years or more. Today, many executives and consultants caution against planning more than two years out. I encourage my clients to do what makes sense for them: If you're a new start-up, think about developing a twelve-month plan designed to put your organization on solid footing; if you've been around awhile and have achieved some stability, a three-year plan might make sense; five-year (or longer) plans are not uncommon for public school systems, municipalities, and larger well-established nonprofits with intensive capital needs. Again, the best advice is to pick the time frame that's right for your particular organization and circumstance.
3) Should we hire a planning consultant? This question deserves careful consideration. A good consultant will move the process along and keep everyone on track, reducing the opportunities for complaining, finger-pointing, and other types of unproductive behavior.
If you decide to create the plan without the assistance of a consultant, don't, under any circumstance, allow your CEO to moderate subsequent planning discussions. Her (or his) input into the plan is simply too important for it to be diluted by things she will need to say and do in her role as planning leader. Instead, appoint another organizational leader to moderate the discussions and keep the process on track.
4) When do we need to have the finished plan in hand? Your planning timeline should be based on milestones rather than specific dates. Organize the process into stages: basic planning, information gathering, decision making, writing, review, and approval. Some stages will take longer than you think, others may go more quickly. Allow adequate time for each, but don't allow the process to drag. Remember, the point of the exercise is to finish with a workable plan, not meet a deadline.
Step Two: Gathering Information. Once the above questions have been answered, the next task is to gather information that describes your organization's current situation and the environment in which it operates. Planners often call this a situational analysis or audit. Typically, it includes a narrative description of your organization, including its history, values, mission, programs, leadership, staffing, and finances, and, in many cases, something called a SWOT analysis — a detailed description of your organization's Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and (competitive) Threats. Some organizations take the process a step further and conduct a PEST analysis — an analysis of the Political, Environmental, Social, and Technical factors currently affecting the organization. Many organizations use both. If your organization is considering a radically different program for the community, is planning to purchase or build a new facility, or is examining the possibility of a merger, then you'll probably want to do both. If, on the other hand, your organization is creating a strategic plan in response to a single issue or challenge, both may not be necessary. The choice will depend on the predisposition of your planning team and your particular circumstance.
Step Three: Decision-Making Time. Once you've gathered the information you need to determine the current state of your organization and its programs and activities, the next step is to make decisions based on that information. It's the responsibility of the planning team, in consultation with other stakeholders, to establish the organization's strategic direction and priorities; to identify goals and milestones on the road to achieving those priorities; and to craft objectives designed to meet those goals. In making these decisions, the planning team should keep its focus on the big picture — the things most likely to result in positive change for the organization. Purchasing a boiler for your building or deciding to increase the size of your mailing list by 5 percent a year will not dramatically change or enhance your organization's prospects and are the kinds of operational decisions best left to staffers.
Step Four: Drafting the Plan. Once the planning team has established your strategic priorities and identified goals and objectives designed to realize those priorities, it's the job of executive management to draft a plan that outlines those priorities and goals, along with any new staff requirements needed to achieve the plan, budgets to support your efforts, and a timeline for turning the vision into reality. The plan should then be reviewed and revised by your planning team and presented to your governing committee for comments, suggestions, and approval. Don't be surprised if members of the governing committee send the draft to others for additional comment; that's their job. When planning for the future, you can't be too careful. If, for example, your organization operates a community healthcare center and plans to expand its presence by purchasing several buildings over the next few years, you might want to send a draft of your plan to key community leaders who do not have a vested interest in the project and are in a position to attest to the validity of your vision and ambitions. If, on the other hand, your organization is an animal shelter that wants to expand its spay/neuter programs over eighteen months or so, broad community review is probably not necessary. Whether or not to seek community review is largely the prerogative of your planning team. If the basic temperament of the team is conservative and/or it believes your new strategic direction will have a deep impact on the community, then go ahead and offer the community an opportunity to comment.
Step Five: Implementation. The board has reviewed, commented on, and approved your plan. Now the fun begins. I have worked with a number of organizations that have paid handsomely to have their strategic plan bound in Corinthian leather with gold engraving and have literally put the plan on the shelf, never to look at it again. What a waste. A strategic plan, no matter how carefully conceived, is worth very little if it isn't scrupulously implemented.
To ensure that your plan is and remains ever present in the minds of your staff, volunteers, and other stakeholders, your governing committee (or its equivalent) should be tasked with monitoring progress toward the goals and objectives laid out in the plan. Direction-setting and -monitoring are core responsibilities of the board and should not be delegated to a planning team or other entity. Instead, the board as a whole should review the plan at regular intervals and, if necessary, suggest adjustments to keep the organization on track.
So there you have it: Five steps to a more secure future. Just remember as you get ready to plan for your next — or very first — plan, that truly effective strategic planning requires equal measures of leadership, commitment, patience, trust, and the participation of many stakeholders. Beyond that, if you can remember to be rigorously honest about your organization's strengths and weaknesses; include a sufficient amount of implementation detail; and strike a balance between ambition and realism, your chances of success are excellent.
Good luck. And remember, if you have any questions about strategic planning or any other aspect of what it takes to be a sustainable nonprofit in the 21st century, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.