Are you contemplating diving into the strategic planning process for your nonprofit but unsure if it’s the right time?
If you answered “yes”, then this article is for you!
One of the most exciting aspects of leading a nonprofit organization is getting to work on a strategic plan. This is a time when Board and staff leaders find time to put aside their tactical, management, and governance work in order to focus on the big picture. And who doesn’t love creating a plan that will revolutionize your organization – or maybe even your field!
As a consultant, I get a lot of questions about strategic planning. For this reason, I regularly hold webinars on strategic planning. And one of the most common questions is this very simple one: “How do I know if my organization is ready to start a strategic planning project?”
And this is the right question to ask!
Far too many leaders start strategic planning when their organizations don’t have the bandwidth or won’t fully benefit from that type of long-range planning. And other nonprofits launch a planning process without having done their homework to find the right process for them. In each of these cases, the charity ends up with a strategic plan that doesn’t meet their needs or — worst case scenario —gets bogged down in the process and never finish the plan.
Over my nearly decade of experience with strategic planning, I’ve become an expert in knowing whether your organization is ready to plan. During this time, I’ve learned that there are certain criteria that are necessary before you’re ready to plan, and I’d like to share some of my hard-earned knowledge with you.
Nonprofits ready to launch an inclusive, energizing, and successful planning process meet the following four criteria:
1. Enough People:
Even when you engage a consultant, planning requires a significant commitment from Board and staff leaders who support the process. This usually means 5 to 6 board members and 1 to 3 staff leaders with the bandwidth to consistently attend planning meetings and to prepare for each session.
Additionally, Board members and senior staff need to attend a full-day Board retreat to develop the plan’s tactics and annual goals. These staff leaders are critical to the process because they are closest to the work actually being done (in medium and large organizations, “staff leaders” might be a small team, while in small organizations, “staff leaders” might just be the Executive Director).
2. Leadership Comment
To succeed at planning, your nonprofit needs its Executive Director and Board Chair to fully commit to the process. This means they’re willing to redirect resources — and even make the tough decision to pass up on an opportunity or postpone dealing with a small fire — so that the team can finish the planning process.
We’ve all worked on a project that lacked the full commitment of leadership. When things got tough or fires needed to be put out, leaders would put that project on the back burner. And moving your planning process on the back burner will cause people to lose enthusiasm and inspiration as the planning process drags on for years. And, really, who wants an uninspired strategic plan?
3. Good Relationships
Successful strategic planning requires that the Board and the Executive Director have a good relationship. This strong partnership is essential to staying focused on the plan and on a common goal of creating a strategy that will guide the organization to new levels of success.
A few years ago, I was facilitating a strategic planning project where the Board Chair and Executive Director were locked in a battle. Before we agreed to facilitate their process, we asked about the relationship and were told that it was “strong.” But about a month into the engagement, we realized it was an incredibly dysfunctional relationship. Both the Board Chair and Executive Director were determined to force the other person out of the organization, and it made every meeting contentious. This dynamic also caused significant heartache for the Board members and leadership staff who were working on the plan. Toward the end of the process, the Executive Director left the organization, but the damage was done. Their strategic plan turned into an 18-month leadership transition and organizational pivot plan. This was a waste of talent and time because a transition plan could have been developed in about a month – with just two or three people.
4. Stability (financial, leadership, programmatic)
Nonprofits that successfully create and implement a strategic plan are stable and not facing a significant crisis in the next twelve months. In this scenario, “crisis” is any issue that could either (a) force the organization to get significantly smaller or (b) endanger the nonprofit’s survival. Crises come in all shapes and sizes: financial, programmatic, public relations, leadership, etc.
While sometimes crisis can’t be anticipated, we can anticipate a looming storm or crisis. As an example, you should know today whether you’re anticipating a budget shortfall in 3 or 4 months. And, if you are, this isn’t the time to begin planning.
Many nonprofit leaders are tempted to begin strategic planning with the hope of both addressing the crisis-causing issue and preparing for long term growth. Unfortunately, plans completed during a crisis focus on the tactical strategies for safely resolving the crisis. And that big, brave, and bold strategic visioning and planning falls by the wayside.
Of course, sometimes an unanticipated crisis occurs in the middle of strategic planning (or toward the end of it). I’ll always remember one very special strategic planning engagement: Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre. We were about to finish their environmental scan in April 2020, when COVID struck. If you recall, COVID had a much larger financial impact on museums and performing arts organizations that counted on ticket revenue.
And that’s why we created scenario plans that considered what Terminus would do if the world wouldn’t be reopened by the fall performance season. (In Spring of 2020 we all *thought* that everything would shut down for a few weeks and then re-open). That scenario planning helped guide Terminus through a difficult autumn and led their chief executive, John Welker, to share the following testimonial, “I came away from [the strategic planning] process energized and fully confident. Terminus now has the tools to thrive in this new uncertain environment.”
Additionally, your nonprofit will generally have more success at planning (and implementing those plans) if you meet these two criteria:
1. A history of successful implementation of plans, procedures, and policies.
Let’s face it: taking the time, energy, and resources necessary to create a strategic plan that won’t be implemented feels disheartening and soul-sucking. And I’ve seen far too often where a Board approves a new strategic plan, then the next day the Board and staff return to “business as usual” while the plan dies a slow death on a shelf or in a Google drive.
For this reason, it’s important to have an honest assessment and discussion about your nonprofit’s track record in implementing plans (or even just new procedures or programs) and, if your implementation muscle isn’t as strong as you like, start the planning process with an implementation strategy in mind. This could include a monthly implementation dashboard shared at each Board meeting or monthly check-ins at the staff senior leadership team meetings.
2. Taken the steps necessary to prepare for planning.
A few years ago, a nonprofit approached me after unsuccessfully attempting to complete their strategic plan for over 18 months. To be clear, they met many of the criteria of success (committed leaders, Board members willing to work, strong relationships, etc), but they hadn’t done the following homework necessary to launch a planning project. These steps include:
- Identifying a planning process. There are a lot of approaches to planning, and it’s important to consider which one is right for your nonprofit. Selecting a planning process will help provide discipline to Board and staff members and keep people focused on the goal when someone has “a great idea” about adding to or changing the process.
- Speaking with potential facilitators or consultants. While this isn’t a popular opinion among consultants, you don’t have to pay a facilitator to run your planning process if you have an unbiased Board member or volunteer with the skills and time necessary to run the process. But speaking with prospective facilitators can help you better understand (a) what to expect from a volunteer facilitator; (b) whether you need to hire a consultant; and (c) how much you should budget for the process.
- Budgeting the funds necessary to complete the planning process. There will be expenses involved in this planning project, and you’ll need to create an itemized budget to share with the Board (and eventually prospective funders). This budget will include retreat expenses (even if the venue and facilitation is donated, you’ll want to cater lunch); learning journey costs ( you can find out about learning journeys here; consulting fees (if you’re hiring a consultant); and environmental scan costs (example – stipends for clients participating in focus groups).
- Identifying the funding necessary to fully pay for the planning project. In our experience, about half our clients use unrestricted funds to cover strategic planning costs, while the remaining use a mix of grant funding, indirect costs paid by government contracts, and major gifts to fund their planning projects. Most of our clients who use foundation grants and major gifts designated to support the strategic plan have reported this is an “easy ask” because the funder knows this grant (or gift) won’t be needed every year.
Since nonprofit leaders often ask us whether they are ready to start a strategic planning project, we created a proprietary quiz to help you answer this important question. This concise 9-question quiz offers quick insights into where your nonprofit stands. In less than 3 minutes, you’ll receive immediate results that pinpoint your level of planning preparedness – revealing if you’re set to strategize, need a tad more groundwork, or have a few obstacles to tackle first. You can take the quiz at this link: https://le72w6l09xm.typeform.com/to/LgEC5mXK
I’d also like to hear from you and invite you to share your experiences with strategic planning in the comments section (or you can even email me directly.
Why I’m Writing About This
I’ve had the privilege of being the strategic planning facilitator for countless nonprofits around the country. I’ve led planning for small and mighty organizations all the way to large nonprofit organizations. If you would like to find out more about our effective and engaging planning process, check out this page of our website or sign up for our next Strategic Planning webinar !
Additionally, check out the following Successful Nonprofits® resources if this post was helpful:
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