4 Activities Every Strategic Planning Process Should Include : Successful Nonprofits

4 Activities Every Strategic Planning Process Should Include

by Ro

4 Activities Every Strategic Planning Process Should Include

by Ro

by Ro



rafting a strategic plan is a commonly accepted best practice in the nonprofit sector.

Not to mention, planning is one of the ways that boards fulfill their legal duty of care. But far too often, nonprofits end up with a lackluster strategic plan that doesn’t serve as a catalyst to grow their impact and ensure sustainability. We’ve all seen these plans. They are the ones in a binder sitting outside the executive director’s office gathering dust. And after a few years, leadership decides it’s time to start the process all over again as everyone silently groans, “Oh no!” 

Thankfully it doesn’t have to be this way. You can have a planning process that energizes staff and sparks your nonprofit to creatively increase its impact. 

After years of facilitating strategic planning, we have developed a dynamic process that will get the results you want. And we know our process works because our clients often return three to five years later to facilitate their next strategic planning process. 

Since we’re committed to being open source, here are the four activities that make our planning process engaging, energizing, and effective:

#1: Involve your stakeholders

An effective strategic plan engages the people it impacts. This means your volunteers, staff, board, community partners, funders, and of course your beneficiaries. By including these stakeholders, you build goodwill and buy-in so your nonprofit will be more likely to have the support it needs to actually implement your new plan. And the results will be more impactful since they include the perspectives of those you serve.

But we all know that saying about too many cooks in the kitchen. So how do you efficiently hear and include all these voices? We have a few ways to do this:

a.) We conduct stakeholder interviews. This means we pick up the phone (or these days hop on Zoom – many stakeholders appreciate being face-to-face) and ask folks their thoughts on where your nonprofit has been and where they hope to see it go. Then we turn this qualitative data into quantitative metrics that will help shape the plan – from the mission to the three-year goals.

b.) We conduct focus groups with staff. We’ve found staff input invaluable for making sure the plan reflects what beneficiaries need and includes tactics that accomplish the goals realistically. Not to mention this helps staff feel included and heard, making them more likely to support the final plan.

c.) We create a “Work Group.” This 7- to 9-person group is primarily composed of board members, key staff, and one or two community members. It is this group that becomes deeply engaged in the planning process and is ultimately responsible for drafting the recommended plan for the full board to approve.

Another benefit to having your Board members participate in the Work Group is that they will soon become subject matter experts about your organization’s programs, partner relations, fundraising, and finances!  They will bring this knowledge to Board meetings and have a vested interest in seeing the plan achieved. 

#2: Set a Big Bold Goal

As gravity keeps your feet (sometimes too) firmly on the ground, committing to just incremental improvement and growth is a force that can hold you back. While many three-year plans may include incremental growth of 10% or even 25%, the Big Bold Goal will help your organization move toward transformational change.

The Big Bold Goal is a decades-long goal that solves an intractable problem and won’t be achieved during the three-year plan. What’s more, it can’t be achieved by just growing programs 10% or 25% each year.  

So how do you know if your goal is a Big Bold Goal? Here’s the simple test: 

              1. Does achieving the goal seem impossible?
              2. Are you and others inspired by the goal?
              3. Can the goal be objectively measured?
              4. Will achieving the goal require new levels of innovation and collaboration? 


Within this paradigm, “Increasing the number of youth accessing our suicide hotline by 50%” is an incremental goal. While “Ending youth suicide in our county” is a Big Bold Goal. 

              1. Does ending youth suicide in our county seem impossible? Certainly!
              2. Are we inspired by the goal of ending youth suicide? Yes!
              3. Can we objectively measure the number of youth who commit suicide in our county each year? We can!
              4. Will ending youth suicide in our community require new levels of innovation and collaboration?  Absolutely!

By engineering your organization to achieve a Big Bold Goal, you can break free from the gravitational pull of incremental change. And you will experience an impact that once seemed impossible. 

#3: Take a Learning Journey

As your strategic three-year goals come into focus, it’s time to identify and schedule a Learning Journey with an organization that already achieved similar goals. The Learning Journey is an excellent opportunity to identify benchmarks and develop a mentoring relationship. Not to mention the information gathered in the Learning Journey will help you shape and strengthen your final plan.

Ideally, your chief executive and two members of your Work Group will participate in the Learning Journey. The Learning Journey itself is typically a 5- to 6-hour meeting at the benchmark partner’s organization during which you will meet with their chief executive and other members of their senior leadership team. It is essential for your Learning Journey team to have an information dossier about the benchmark partner, as well as questions to ask during the meetings. 

During the Learning Journey, you will gain an understanding about how the organization achieved its growth and lessons it learned over the past several years. You can also seek advice about your goals and planned approach to achieving those goals. 

 #4: Create a Multi-Year Budget

Since the act of budgeting forces us to consider all of the resources necessary to achieve the plan’s goal, the strategic planning process should also develop a budget for each year of the plan.  This multi-year budget will help you implement your strategic plan by:

            • Giving your fundraising team annual targets to accomplish, as well as essential information for soliciting prospects and funders.
            • Providing another quantifiable way of determining if the plan is being implemented. Are staff costs growing at the rate anticipated? Are direct program expenses meeting the budget targets? 
            • Offering your funders and major donors insight into why additional funds will be needed in future years.
            • Serving as a guide for the annual budgeting process.

Indeed, the time spent creating your three-year budget will pay dividends throughout plan implementation!

Why I’m writing about this:

We at Successful Nonprofits® are the first to admit we learn something new from each Strategic Planning engagement. And after years of learning and refining, we have created an effective process that has proven the value of these four (and more!) planning strategies! Learn more about our planning process  or sign up for our upcoming webinar, Everything You Wanted to Know About Strategic Planning (but were afraid to ask).

Additionally, check out the following Successful Nonprofits® resources if this post was helpful:

Blog: Simple Nonprofit Dashboards (with templates)

Podcast: The Magic of Strategic Plans with Liana Downey

Feel free to share your thoughts!

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