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Strategic Planning: Cutting Through the Buzz

Strategic planning, capacity planning, mission-based planning. Where does the buzz end and the value begin? How do you know if you're on the right track?

As in the for-profit world, nonprofit strategic planning can take many forms. It's increasingly key to receiving funding-so key that foundations are voicing their preference for agencies with succinct, vetted, and viable business plans that replicate best practices from the for-profit world.

And, according to the Aspen Institute, to survive in the future, nonprofits need to improve their business operating processes. That's one of the underpinnings of strategic planning.

This can be tense ground within nonprofits, where highly skilled service providers may not have business and finance backgrounds. Board members with business degrees frequently err on the side of profit and loss at the individual program level. "Founders syndrome" can mean that nonprofits forge forward with programs out of touch with changes in constituent needs because they are so insularly focused on the past. All agree there is no shortage of good works to be done.

These factors lead to the kind of tug-of-war that makes board chairs and executive directors/presidents stay up at night. Roles and responsibilities become obfuscated by conflicting beliefs and priorities-fueled by a common passion to make a difference that produces high-octane adrenaline. And while the battle rages on in a Catch-22, constituents suffer the loss of productivity, as development officers are left to raise more and more money to keep up.

Mission-Based Capacity Planning isn't about buzz. It's about borrowing successful business practices and linking them with a nonprofit organization&#39#39;s fundamental mission. It's about using tried and true corporate tools to ensure that nonprofit constituents receive the maximum possible value in areas of the greatest impact. It's a model for encompassing paid and nonpaid staff; for validating what matters most; and for prioritizing scarce resources so that what is done is done well and that what can't be done well—things that are great ideas but that don't get to the heart of what constituents need—doesn't siphon off money and time.

Here's an example. A local church (the name doesn't matter) has historically served a population that's changing. The former spiritual leader has been gone for more than 15 years, but there are constituents that still refer to him as the "real" leader and to the existing pastor as the "new guy." A congregational mix of people with a broad array of religious backgrounds is now roughly 35 percent from the original theological base and 35 percent from a mix of more than 15 other theological contexts.

A brief survey of all members—those attending regularly and those attending periodically—reveals that an overwhelming majority of the congregation attends first for the people, second for the pastor/sermons, and third for the music-a sophisticated choir that performs chorale-level music on a weekly basis without a director. Yet the church is distracted by political infighting around a handful of complaints by a handful of people. Incredibly, this congregation is very much on the same page but doesn't know it, because the squeaky wheels are making noise about things the bulk of the congregation doesn't value, diverting financial and human resources to things that don't contribute to the majority's spiritual fulfillment or to the missions most feel matter.

In this case, using Mission-Based Capacity Planning, the church's mission was revalidated, and activities were prioritized according to the entire congregation's survey responses. This information informed activities that have energized the members and enabled them to embrace change with spiritual impact to the majority. It has permitted prioritization of both volunteer (lay) energy and staff energy, and it has given the pastor valuable feedback that has informed his ability to reach people more effectively through his words.

A simple example, but imagine this same emphasis on the scale of an organization as large as the United Way-currently in transition here in Chicago. It's no different, it's just larger and more complex. But the larger size also means that the changes can be far more meaningful to a much larger constituent base. What if the United Way offered for-profit business training, teaching to fish instead of giving fish? What if the United Way took the lead in teaching the kinds of marketing skills corporations use to segment and serve their markets? What if foundations followed suit?

As is true in the for-profit world, starting with the end constituents, understanding what can be accomplished and then how and when to apply scarce resources against those goals, ensures that a higher percentage of resources are going toward mission-critical programs and services. Using for-profit business processes that have been modified for nonprofits is simply the most effective, data-driven mechanism for making a difference. Call it buzz or call it whatever you'd like, unless the nonprofit is using its resources cost effectively, it's wasting those resources—unconscionable when there is such great need.

So how do you know if you're on track? See if you can answer these questions:

  1. Can you definitively measure mission success in numeric terms other than profit and loss?
  2. Can every service and every staff member and volunteer communicate how his/her daily actions and decisions are driven by your strategic plan, which reinforces your mission?
  3. Are your board and senior staff able to plan capital expenditures and technology improvements easily and consistently with your short- and long-term mission?
If you can't answer yes to these three questions, your planning process can benefit from some improvements.

Cheryl Gidley is Managing Partner of Gidley Consulting, a Chicago-area firm offering strategic planning counsel and training to nonprofits, professional services providers and entrepreneurs. She serves on strategic planning committees and as a director for several nonprofit and for-profit organizations, and welcomes your comments.
Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice