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Using Your Strategic Plan

Quick quiz: When was the last time you looked at your organization's strategic plan? And not just the nice binder on your shelf, but at what's inside it? When did you last use the strategic plan to inform what you were doing a particular week? If it's been in the last week or two, hats off to you! If it's been much longer, ask yourself: Is your strategic plan really informing your work?

Let's face it: We all put a lot of effort into developing a good strategic plan. It takes many meetings, countless hours, and considerable wordsmithing to get a plan that everyone can live with. But does everyone live with it, or simply wipe their collective brow when it's finished and say, "Whew, that was a lot of work we won't have to do again for a couple of years"? That may be an extreme example, but most of us don't get as much value from our strategic plans as the efforts we put into developing them.

A good strategic planning process isn't done until the executive director (ED) has put the structure in place to ensure that the plan is woven throughout the organization and referenced regularly so that it can't be forgotten on a shelf. Let's look at some steps to make that happen, starting with the major assumption that your strategic plan as developed by the board and executive director.

Follow the Money

The strategic plan should be the primary document to reference when setting the organization's budget (i.e., the organization's financial plan). If the resources to execute the strategic plan (adequate staff, cost of initiatives, supplies, etc.) aren't accounted for in the budget, it's going to be an uphill battle to complete the steps in the strategic plan. Does the budget also reflect reasonable revenue projections? Here is not the place to put your highest aspirations—revenues should be set conservatively if you need them to cover required expenses. But each area in the plan that calls for revenues to be received should be reflected in the budget. The board should track progress on the financial aspects of the strategic plan at each board meeting.

Planning Staff Priorities

A good strategic plan includes measurable goals for the organization. This is the perfect start for setting the executive director's goals. The ED can work with the board (or a subset such as the Executive Committee or a Compensation Committee) to identify the key organizational goals from the strategic plan on which he/she should focus. By establishing written goals in sync with the organization's goals, the ED is assured of aligning his/her efforts throughout the year. With a periodic review of progress on the goals and possible mid-course corrections, the ED will be continuously advancing the organization according to the strategic plan.

But there's no reason to stop aligning goals with the executive director. Each staff member should be contributing to the organization's success as defined by the strategic plan and should therefore have his or her goals set in alignment with that plan. Not all of their goals will come straight from the strategic plan; there will be goals around doing their jobs more effectively, professional development, etc. But staff should have ownership over components of the organization's goals, and there should be constant tracking of staff goals. For example, where goals are set on an annual basis, there should be at least quarterly reviews of progress. These are great opportunities for coaching staff to ensure they're on track to complete their goals or to suggest corrective actions if necessary.

No Bored Boards

Your board members should have been some of the major architects of the strategic plan. If engaged fully in the process, they helped with the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis and provided their perspectives on not only where the organization is but where it's going as well. Great job—you've engaged them to the point that they are vested in the plan and have ownership of it. Now don't make the board wait until next year to see how the organization did in terms of the strategic plan.

You have a wonderful opportunity to structure board work around making the plan successful. Do you have financial goals that will necessitate development efforts? If so, then make sure the Board Developmemt Committee has goals—measurable goals—that align with the strategic plan. That will lead to a natural board meeting agenda item—a report on progress toward the goal by the Board Development Committee. And that report should be made by the chair of that committee, not the executive director! Congratulations—you have just created a structure that continuously puts the strategic plan in action as well as uses subtle peer pressure to help motivate board members to action. Don't stop with the development goals; if you have programmatic or other goals in the strategic plan, make sure each board committee has ownership over those goals, is reporting on them in board meetings, and shares what's working and what they need the rest of the board's help with.

Putting It to Good Use

You put a lot of work into developing your strategic plan, and you want to be successful in implementing it. You know that will further your organization's mission. But it's not going to happen without some work ... and some structure.

With these systems in place you won't have to worry about your strategic plan collecting dust on the shelf! You'll be reviewing it and assessing how well you're doing on it with each quarterly staff goal review and each monthly or quarterly board meeting. If you get off track, you'll know quickly enough to get make corrections. And when the plan is ready to be reviewed, you'll have tracked all the wonderful accomplishments your board and staff have attained in meeting the goals of your strategic plan!

Related Article

Entering the New World of Strategic Planning

Bill Hoffman, Bill Hoffman and Associates, LLC
© 2012, Bill Hoffman and Associates, LLC

Bill Hoffman has over 30 years' expertise in various aspects of the nonprofit sector, having worked at all levels of nonprofit organizations, including serving as chief executive of a $6 million education foundation for 9 years. He and his firm have written and presented on topics ranging from board development to community and volunteer engagement, organizational development and performance, and best practices in national, regional, and state publications and symposia.

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice