Getting Past the Chicken-and-Egg Cycle of Nonprofit Strategic Planning Skepticism

There is a lot of room for improvement in the usual nonprofit strategic planning process; so much so that current approaches can create fiduciary and organizational risk. Root causes are not hard to find.

To start, many organizations see these plans as a box to check, something to pull together every few years, toss on a shelf and revise only when pressed. There could be any number of reasons for this perspective—the why doesn’t even matter. What matters is that this view guarantees the process will be worth the value—economic and intrinsic—placed on and invested in the plan, so virtually none.

This type of plan is, no pun intended, not a plan. Equally problematic, far too many well-intentioned but poorly executed strategic plans have justifiably left a wide swath of cynics in their paths. So here we are, with many nonprofit professionals having had bad experiences and seeing little value in an end-product that has a critical business function.

A Plan for When It Hits the Fan

Good business or strategic plans create a roadmap by which a management team can make rapid, high-quality decisions when events deviate (as they so often do) from expectations. Poorly prepared documents generally forgo quality data gathering, structured debate of current and emerging existential issues, thoughtful examination of and decision-making relative to market trends, robust financial analysis and modeling, or other tasks specific to the organization’s function in its ecosystem.

That stuff matters because boards and management teams need these things to develop considered and tactically executable operating plans for the organization. The low value placed on non-strategic “strategic” plans and the ready availability of people willing to prepare them for low fees means they are popular and readily available, unfortunately.

If you do think having a comprehensive operating plan for your organization has intrinsic value (we hope you do!) and you want a plan you can rely on as a tool to make confident decisions when things get challenging, as they likely will, you can definitely lay groundwork and also avoid some key pitfalls.

  1. Pitfall: Do NOT assume that a generic strategic plan outline will give you and your organization the information you need in your plan, particularly if the plan is for an organization that is at a fragile or critical juncture. This does not mean that your plan needs to be a huge project and look at a million different things; it means you need to determine what specific things YOUR organization must examine that matter. Consider asking someone with both business and management experience to scope out the outline of the plan with you before you get started.
  2. Pitfall: Assume, even with a personalized outline per No. 1, that you will find new and unexpected information. Do not be worried about this as it means you are doing a good job! A realistic plan leaves room for encountering the unexpected and leaves time and flexibility for incorporating a robust review of that material into the work plan.
  3. Pro tip: One of the toughest challenges in a truly strategic planning process is addressing complicated or sensitive information about which people disagree. And reasonable people can indeed disagree about what certain pieces of information mean and about how to deal with them. If this is where you find yourself, you may need to pause your process and call in a resource who is able to present information in a way that is digestible to senior executives who disagree with one another and who can help them navigate to a solution.

The Low-Cost, Non-Recommended Solution or a Real Plan?

Often, we see strategic/business plans resourced exclusively based on cost and timeline as if specific experience solving the type of problem the organization is facing is immaterial to the quality of the outcome. We absolutely cannot recommend this approach. Cost and timeline are factors to consider, but they are not indicators that you will achieve an affordable plan fast that also addresses your issues and enables you to make decisions when the bullets are flying. Factor in all three key variables: cost, timing and your specific needs to be sure you get the outcome you are really after.

First published in NonProfitPRO PROSPEAK on May 21, 2019.

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