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Creating Your Nonprofit’s Future: Why Strategic Planning May Be the Most Important Thing Nonprofit Executive Directors Can Do

A hand is pinning yarn to a schematic on a white board covered with papers and yarn indicating relationships between themIf you’re the leader of a nonprofit organization, you no doubt face a constant barrage of demands and opportunities. And the more successful your organization becomes, the more demands you need to field. Your clients want you to provide more or different services; other groups ask you to partner with them; staff members suggest new program ideas and priorities. You are flooded with invitations to participate on committees, respond to RFPs (requests for proposals), and speak at conferences. You also have your own ideas for opportunities to create and seek out. Although this is a good problem to have, you can’t do it all—and it can be challenging to consider all the options. How do you decide which opportunities deserve the valuable time of your staff, board, and volunteers?

This is where strategic planning comes in. A strategic plan enables an organization to function from an intentional and active place rather than a reactive one. It streamlines decision making and acts as a road map for realizing the organization’s vision.  

I witnessed the benefits of strategic planning firsthand while serving as the executive director of a San Francisco health advocacy nonprofit. Looking back on my 10 years in that role, I can say that the time we spent doing strategic planning contributed to our success more than time we spent doing anything else.

What Is Strategic Planning?

A strategic plan lays out a comprehensive set of coordinated actions that work together to advance an organization’s mission. Strategist Michael Porter writes, “Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.” Most strategic planning processes are based on stakeholder input and a thoughtful assessment of a nonprofit’s unique value proposition, its networks, and its position in the competitive landscape.

Strategic decisions are directional and overarching. A strategic plan differs from an operational plan, which focuses on the details of how to get things done. Strategic plans identify high-priority strategic directions and goals, actions for meeting those goals, and indicators for measuring success. They typically look out three to five years.

In the words of management expert Peter Drucker, “You cannot predict the future, but you can create it.” Both the process and the product of strategic planning shape the future of the organization.

Why Engage in Strategic Planning?

Once an organization’s strategic directions and high-priority goals are clearly defined, its resources can be allocated more efficiently. And just as important, its leaders’ vision of the future is clarified, staff shares a more solid purpose and direction, and stakeholders and constituents become more engaged. With a clear picture of its desired future, the organization is in a strong position to bring about that future.

Strategic planning identifies core capabilities the organization needs to build in order to strengthen its resilience in a changing environment. Strategic planning also:

  • Clarifies your organization’s mission, vision, and values, which ground its identity and pull the organization forward, guiding all subsequent decisions.

  • Deepens engagement among staff, board members, volunteers, partners, program participants, donors, and other stakeholders while building a shared understanding of who the organization is and where it is going, including its theory of change.

  • Helps you anticipate upcoming challenges by examining your organization’s internal strengths and weaknesses, scanning its external environment, and identifying and troubleshooting obstacles.

  • Provides a framework and decision matrix to guide your day-to-day decisions, including prioritizing investments and opportunities to pursue.

  • Provides a fundraising and marketing document to use with funders and other constituents that articulates your organization’s aspirations and needs for support.

I’ve seen strategic planning help organizations grow and deepen their impact profoundly. A workforce development nonprofit expanded its programs, purchased a building, and gained national recognition following its strategic planning process. A social justice advocacy nonprofit achieved an operational and financial turnaround within two years—with continual expansions in programs, budgets, and impact—by deciding where to focus and what to ignore. An environmental conservation organization received more than a million dollars in funding for a new program that its leadership identified as a priority area for investment during the strategic planning process. 

A Fruitful Process

Often board members, executive directors, and other leadership staff fear that strategic planning will take too long, create unpleasant conflict, or create a document that just “sits on the shelf” unused. A good strategic plan need not be lengthy, however, nor need it take a year or more to develop. Most plans I develop for organizations take about six months to create, and the plans themselves are typically only 10–20 pages long. When done well, with clear expectations set, a strategic planning process invigorates staff and board members. It surfaces areas of agreement and aligns everyone with your strategy. And most importantly, the organization regularly uses tools created from the planning process to make more effective decisions.

To successfully navigate today’s waves of rapid, unpredictable change, organizations must continually adapt in ways that can’t be known in advance. A good strategic planning process provides the self-knowledge, alignment, and decision tools that support organizations as they adapt.

Belinda Lyons-NewmanBelinda Lyons-Newman, MBA, is principal and founder of Lyons-Newman Consulting, a nonprofit management consulting firm based in the San Francisco Bay Area that provides comprehensive strategic planning and related services to support nonprofit, local government, and foundation leaders and organizations in deepening their impact and achieving their goals. Reach Belinda at belinda@lyonsnewman.com or visit www.lyonsnewman.com.

Topics: strategic plan