Critically Important and Nothing to Fear
By Kathy Cohen, PhD and Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD
The many challenges that nonprofit organizations face are well known: everything from rising expenses, to increasing competition for philanthropic dollars, to leadership and staff recruitment and retention. For every problem, there are myriad voices offering potential solutions. Some of those voices come straight from employees, friends and and those who the organizations serve, while others come from organizations looking at nonprofits from 20,000 feet above or other experts who proffer “best practices.” These voices are well meaning, and many have excellent advice to share. Yet, one could be driven to distraction by listening to all of the well meaning views and suggestions. How can organizations maintain focus, seize opportunities, and address challenges among all of those “helpful” opinions? Organizations are best advised to reflect internally and engage in a strategic planning process.
A strategic plan allows organizations to identify key issues, name priorities, ensure that resources are directed toward agreed upon goals, and develop action plans to tackle issues. Despite telling clients in our coaching and consulting practices that strategic plans are often the linchpin to focusing and making goals actionable and achievable, we often see great resistance and hear many excuses. “We don’t have time for planning.” “We know who we are; we don’t need a plan.” “We have no bandwidth (staff or lay).” “Planning is a waste of time when we have too many day to day issues to tackle.” “Our last plan is on the shelf somewhere.”
We know it can sound daunting to think about crafting your organization’s strategic plan. Just thinking about it can feel like a further drain on resources (like time, money, and person power) that already feel scarce. We are here to tell you that it need not drain your resources and it need not drag on for months or years (yep, we’ve seen it). In fact, strategic planning does just the opposite: it is the ultimate streamliner helping you conserve resources and apply them toward their maximum benefit.
Simple but Savvy Strategic Planning
The good news is that your strategic plan should only target the next 3 to 5 years of your organization. Though you won’t have to go through this process every year, you will need to review your plan regularly and make sure you are still on the right course and making progress toward goals. In most cases, you will get faster further and more effectively by hiring an outside experienced consultant (depending on your budget) to help you design, manage and facilitate the process, and even help prepare the final plan. If that is not possible, consider asking your local foundations or past board leaders for help facilitating or guiding the process. Well-planned strategic thinking can take place across existing board and staff meetings and you can get tremendous insights and direction from just one well-planned retreat.
Below, we break down steps your strategic planning committee or task force can take to build a successful strategic plan.
Building a Team
It is crucial to build a strategic planning committee or task force that is large enough to get the work done and small enough to maintain focus and be nimble. Your team might include a few board members, the executive director, and maybe some key staff who are familiar with organizational operations, finances, and development.
Knowing your Focus
Good strategic plans propel stakeholders to work as a team toward common goals. First and foremost, think about the organization’s mission, values, and vision. What is the overarching goal of the institution and what need does it fill? Is the institution meeting that mission or does it need to alter course? What is its ultimate vision?
Getting the Facts
Before you can begin to think about what your organization’s opportunities and obstacles really are, you need to have knowledge of how your organization operates currently. This includes a description of all functional areas of the organization and their corresponding staffing and budgets.
Determining What Is and Isn’t Working
Once you have identified each functional area, it is then time to assess how well each area is serving the organization. Are there areas that need to be updated? Does the development team have the resources it needs to fundraise successfully? Does marketing attract new customers/users? Is the facility adequate? It is a very good idea to hear from stakeholders about how things are going through surveys, focus groups or interviews.
Doing Your Research
This is the time to benchmark your functional areas and how they operate against those of your competitors. You may reasonably assume that your organization is attracting fewer customers/users because costs are too high, only to find out that a critical mass is attracted to other sites because of better hours or coordinated services. You may find that other area agencies have fundraising or customer service strategies that you could feasibly implement. Look widely at the competitive landscape, whether it is local, national, or international.
Setting Your Goals
Determining what is and isn’t working, as well as doing your research, will directly inform the goals of your strategic plan. By determining what is and isn’t working, you will be able to see where your organization shines and where your challenges lie. By conducting your internal review, you will be able to see not only what challenges you need to address, but also where potential opportunities lie. Taking all of this data into consideration together will help you set goals for your strategic plan.
For example, suppose a school wants to increase the size of its student body. If the school needs to attract students from neighboring towns where the current student body does not live, the goals of the school’s strategic plan may include developing a better bussing system, partnering with potential area feeder schools, and marketing tailored to new catchment areas. Similarly, if the school determines that amping up its athletic programming will attract more students, strategic goals will include devising new athletic offerings, determining who would teach athletic classes, what kind of resources and support the athletic department will need and if the facilities are adequate.
Presenting the Plan to the Board
Once the committee or task face has articulated the strategic priority areas (we recommend 3-5 at most) and goals based on its work, the plan needs to be presented to the board of directors for their approval.
Determining Action Plans
This is the time to convert your strategic objectives into specific initiatives. Larger goals, like reimagining the building, should be broken down into smaller goals that are specific and measurable. Your overarching goal may be to have a building in three to five years, but your goal over the next six months may be to create a task force and organize focus groups to reimagine the building. After your board approves your direction and priorities, a smaller group should drill down to an implementation plan. This is comprised of clearly stating the goals and operational plans for achieving them including action steps, timelines, measures of success, and who will be responsible for overseeing each step of the process.
Setting Plans into Motion
Once all of the above has been determined, your organization will be ready to execute on its strategic plan. Key issues to think about here include who will communicate the plan to stakeholders, how will the plan be monitored, and how you will know if the plan is working. Be sure to set benchmarks for your institution so you can assess progress against goals and results.
Your plan is not only important internally, as it gives direction, aligns your board and staff, and shapes your budgets; it is also important externally as you communicate to your donors, community, partners and customers/users. Exciting strategic plans create momentum that help with friendraising, fundraising, and attracting customers/users. When every stakeholder can articulate the future vision of the organization and can see the progress it is making toward goals, the momentum has a life of its own. As you invite people into helping make your organization’s vision into reality, you will be grateful that you took the time to create your strategic plan.
Kathy Cohen, PhD, is a Clinical Psychologist and experienced nonprofit board president who provides governance and development consulting as well as coaching for nonprofit organizations. Her practice is focused on helping nonprofit executives and boards become more focused, efficient, collaborative and impactful. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, is catalyst, consultant, coach and speaker. She is the founder and principal of Fridman Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, financial resource development, governance and leadership coaching for values-driven organizations. Nanette is the author of On Board: What Current and Aspiring Board Members Must Know About Nonprofits & Board Service and Holding the Gavel: What Nonprofit Board Leaders Need to Know. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.