Our recent article, Rethinking Your Nonprofit’s Future in the Face of COVID-19, highlighted the importance of following a strategic plan while navigating the ever-changing landscape of the COVID-19 world. In this article, we’ll dive a little deeper into the “how” of creating a strategic plan to help those nonprofits with outdated or no plans get started.
For many nonprofit leaders, the idea of creating a strategic plan feels daunting because of four common mistakes:
- Trying to plan too far in the future;
- Treating strategic planning as an event;
- Being stymied by perfection; and
- Insisting on a plan. (Confused? Stick with us.)
Start with Two (2) Years
Futurists have predicted that identified generations will soon be divided by as little as a four-year span. Meaning: two siblings from the same family who are 5 years apart in age will have such different formative sociological, economic and technological experiences that they will fall into different generations. That’s an incredibly fast rate of change. And, really, it’s not entirely surprising when we consider how quickly our lives have changed since 2020 started and how different they will be post-COVID 19.
Where it was once commonplace to define a 10-year strategic plan, trying to define a 5-year plan has now become futile. Your nonprofit’s strategic vision must be long-term because it will take decades to create it. However, your strategic goals and objectives to achieve that vision should focus no more than 3 years in the future. Keep it simple and focus on what you want to achieve in the next two years. When the world inevitably changes in ways you never anticipated over those two years, you’ll have a chance to define new, more relevant strategic goals for the next two.
Strategic Planning is a Discipline, Not a Single Event
Too many nonprofit leaders believe that a strategic plan is a final product created from a one-time board weekend board retreat where a consultant presents a plan in a new shiny binder that its placed on a shelf never to be seen again. Strategic planning done well is an active, consistent process that is woven into the daily work of the organization. Ideally:
- every board meeting will include an agenda item to review and evaluate the organization’s progress toward it’s strategic goals.
- every employee will understand his/her responsibility in helping to achieve the organization’s strategic goals and annual performance reviews will discuss individual contributions to the organization’s strategic process; and
- every grant application, grant report and annual report will highlight the organization’s strategic goals and progress towards them.
Think of a strategic plan as a living plant. It will die without regularly evaluating its health and taking the necessary steps to keep it growing and thriving.
Focus on Progress, Not Perfection
Because the rate of change is so rapid and there are so many individuals and variables involved in implementing every strategic effort, it’s overwhelming to attempt to define a “perfect” plan. In fact, IT’S IMPOSSIBLE. Don’t let a desire for perfection stymy your ability to help your organization progress. No plan has ever been perfect and yours will be no exception. The unexpected will happen, and your plan will need to be changed or adjusted. If you are regularly practicing strategic planning (as mentioned above) you’ll be able to respond quickly, make changes needed, re-focus and continue advancing toward your mission. Baby steps can add up to big success.
Variations on a Plan
At Spokes, we have a tried and true strategic planning process that works for us and we use that process to help our members in defining their strategic plan. However, your nonprofit may be facing extraordinary circumstances that make a more traditional, full-scale planning process challenging – a leadership change, unexpected financial issue, a rapidly-emerging client/community need, lack of human resources to staff a planning committee, etc. That’s OK. In those situations, it may be more feasible and beneficial to define a strategic framework with a 2-3 key metric to track and discuss at regular board and employee meetings.
Whether you define a comprehensive plan or a basic framework, your variation needs to address the following questions:
- What world/reality do you want to create? What will be true 20 (or 50) years from now because of the work your nonprofit is doing today?
- What specific types of activities will the nonprofit do every day to achieve that vision?
- When faced with an unprecedented situation, what core beliefs or values will guide your nonprofit in finding the right solution? What are the “rules of engagement” governing every interaction between an employee, volunteer, client or other stakeholder?
- SWOT Analysis
- What are the CURRENT strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that contribute or detract from your nonprofit’s ability to perform its mission well and move closer to its vision? (Strengths and weaknesses focus on internal variables like staff, volunteers, equipment and facilities. Opportunities and threats are external variables like donor relationships, community trends, and new legislation.)
- What do we want to be true in 2 years from now? (or whatever timeframe you choose.) e.g. Significantly grow our base of annual donors.
- SMART Objectives
- What specific, achievable, measurable, relevant, time-based actions will you take to help achieve your goals? e.g. Double the number of $100 donors by December 31, 2020.
- Action Plan
- Who is responsible for doing what by when? Every task needs to be assigned to an owner who is accountable to a deadline.
- Do we have enough financial and human resources to achieve the goals and objectives we’ve set? Do we need to reallocate resources? Are we budgeting the “right” resources to ensure our success?
- What metrics will we track and data will we collect to quantify/qualify our progress toward our strategic goals and objectives? How often will we collect and report the data?
We hope this article gives you some actionable ideas on how to start weaving a strategic planning discipline into your nonprofit’s operations to guarantee greater mission success. Spokes is always happy to offer personalized strategic planning consulting services for its members and, for those who prefer a DIY approach, we’re pleased to provide the following strategic planning resources to help you on your way.