Strategic planning has been in vogue for several years in the nonprofit sector. In part because many funders are requiring – and funding – it, and because, in many cases, strategic planning can be so valuable, it is now seen as vital for every nonprofit. At the right time and under the right conditions, strategic planning can indeed be just what an organization needs to move forward in a focused and effective way.
Yet strategic planning has also become an example of the old joke: “if you’re a hammer, every problem is a nail.” Strategic planning is often seen as a cure-all for numerous organizational ailments that it is not well-suited to help. In a previous Consultants Corner article, I described qualities of strategic plans that are useful for effective decision making. Unfortunately many a strategic plan is, as mentioned in that article, “primarily a list of good ideas (often in bullet-point format) that does not factor into ongoing board and staff decision making.”
Strategic Planning: When It Works
At its best, strategic planning helps a spectrum of organizational stakeholders come together and build consensus around a clear mission and strategic direction. Planning helps articulate what makes an organization unique in the “marketplace” of nonprofits – so valuable for developing the fundraising “ask.” And an often overlooked benefit of an adequate strategic planning process is providing data on an organization’s internal strengths and weaknesses, as well as perspectives regarding community needs and trends.
In order to conduct an honest self-assessment, listen to community concerns, and make often difficult decisions about what to do and what not to do moving forward, there need to be several conditions in place, including:
- Excellent communication
- Good negotiation skills
- An adequate level of trust
- An absence of debilitating conflict
- A capable and engaged board
- Staff and volunteer leaders able to foster effective collaboration rather than try and control the outcome
Ignoring the Deeper Organizational Issues
Strategic planning isn’t likely to work well in brand-new start-ups and organizations in emergency-room, “life-support” conditions. Planning requires time and effort, and stakeholder engagement, despite the often busy workloads staff and volunteers maintain. And strategic planning is not the best tool in many situations:
- Strategic planning is not the way to resolve deep and lingering conflict, develop an effective board, cope with an overly controlling founder or leader and other common nonprofit issues.
- Strategic planning will not suddenly save an organization that is sinking fast due to financial or other troubles.
- Strategic planning will not resolve serious deficiencies in operations, such as poor supervision, inadequate financial management, a culture of fear and antagonism, and leadership that lacks self-awareness of their own strengths and limitations.
Yet even where there are significant internal problems, organizations may press on with planning regardless, resulting in a plan that can be vague and superficial, adopting a “lowest-common-denominator” to achieve agreement. I’ve seen planning delayed and even derailed because the internal fissures are too great to step over. In these scenarios, the most pressing issues – which may be more important at the moment than the lack of a strategic plan – are not addressed. Planning, therefore, can get in the way of addressing the most serious organizational issues.
Hone Your Focus
Here are some ideas to make the most of planning or focus on what’s needed most:
- Don’t rush into planning without having an honest and searching conversation about readiness. Are there other issues that are vital to address first, which would then provide a more solid basis for strategic planning?
- Consider conducting an organizational assessment before committing to strategic planning. An assessment will identify organizational strengths and the most crucial areas for improvement – which may include the need for a strategic plan.
And if strategic planning is called for, the assessment will serve in good measure as part of the situation assessment data-gathering that every planning process should begin with.
- Rather than immediately funding strategic planning in every situation, funders should consider supporting capacity building in two phases, with an organizational assessment first and a second phase to support working on one or more of the key issues identified in the assessment.
- If short-term planning is needed, even though the conditions for full strategic planning are not in place, consider briefer strategic thinking exercises to plan for a brief “bridge” period until a more full planning process can be carried out. For example, consider the questions regarding mission or do analyses of fit and viability as mentioned in the previous article, Do You Use Your Strategic Plan?