Strategic Planning or Strategic Thinking?
Thoughts for Nonprofits in an Ever-Changing Environment
by David B. Marcu
The well-known French expression attributed to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” is often translated “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Anyone living in the world of nonprofit organizations (NPO’s) could say that in fact the exact opposite is true. We live in an age where not only does the world continue to change, but the rate of change increases exponentially. For NPO’s trying to keep track of their operating environment, the ferocious and unending pace of change can be dizzying.
Those of us who studied management in the previous century were taught to create strategic plans, typically for five years ahead, where we could imagine, project, and chart the future of our organizations. Five years? It is hard today to picture what is in store for us next year.
It has been suggested, wisely, that strategic planning be replaced by strategic thinking and strategic direction. Today’s NPO leaders need to be fast and agile, able to adjust and excel in an ever changing environment. The nature of funding, technologies and communal needs is in a constant flux. If we can’t always know where we’ll be five years from now, we can build agencies that can meet these challenges by readying themselves for what is next, innovating and leading, so that we can respond to need in creative and necessary ways.
In a recent article, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, quoting “Great By Choice”, by management guru Jim Collins, states “outstanding organisations plan for the marathon, not the spring.” Sacks then states that great companies do “not over-react to change, be it for good or bad. They keep their eye on the far horizon.” This is good advice that is not always easy to follow. How do we accomplish this? With strategic vision.
Successful quarterbacks, hockey players and soccer players do not pass the ball or puck to where the other player is, but to where he or she will be. In a constantly changing environment, NPO’s must anticipate the future as though it is almost here.
When NPO’s design and plan organizational structures and systems, build facilities and invest funds, they can no longer assume that current needs and plans will stay constant… we can likely assume they will not. So flexibility and a vision about the future become critical parts of any NPO’s organizational culture. This means flat organizational structures where leadership, entrepreneurial thinking, and initiative are encouraged and not “top down” management. The ability of our NPO’s to navigate the world, and in so doing, shape it and its future, is now an existential imperative. Quality services will always be valued, but how, when and at what cost they are provided will determine which organizations will be here in the long run. And the long run is getting shorter and shorter.
David B. Marcu is the CEO of Israel Elwyn, an organization that provides support services for children and adults with disabilities and their families. He is a past president of the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services, is a member of the board of directors of the Israel Council for Social Welfare and serves on the professional advisory committee for youth and disabilities of “Tevet”, the employment subsidiary of JDC Israel.