The three worst reasons nonprofits engage in strategic planning

reasons nonprofits engage in strategic planning
Strategic planning will be a colossal waste of your time and money if you don’t know why you are doing it.

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And three great reasons nonprofits engage in strategic planning.

When I get a call from someone saying they want to discuss what support I might give to their strategic planning process, one of the first things I do is ask a question like:

  • Why do you want to do strategic planning right now?  Why does it matter? 
  • How will you define success when you are finished.

Having been a nonprofit leader for 25 years, I don’t believe in wasting anyone’s time.  Nonprofit leaders are solving the most important problems of the day with minimal resources.  Time should be well spent. There are certain answers to these questions that I know will just result in frustration for the leader, and probably for me as the consultant too!

In truth, when I ask a leader why he or she wishes to engage in a planning process right now, more often than not I hear a version of the three “no’s” below.  If I’m honest, there are also plenty of times leading a nonprofit that I would have given the same answer, if asked. 

reasons nonprofits engage in strategic planning

The “No”:

So why are these reasons to engage in strategic planning likely only to bring frustration with the process, not to mention feeling like it is a big waste of time and money?  The first two are just about checking a box.  Strategic planning takes time and money.  If you hope to get nothing more out of this than being able to say, “Yes, we have a strategic plan!”, then you will be frustrated about every minute you spend on it and will likely not end up with anything that helps you in any way.  If you truly can’t find any other reason than one of these first two to engage, then just extend your current plan for a few more years or have your board quickly brainstorm a few goals and strategies at your next meeting.  While you won’t likely end up with the plan you need this way, it is better not to waste your time and money.

As for the third reason, trying to get yourself out from under a micro-managing board, a consultant could help with governance training and the board’s relationship with the senior leader, but that is an entirely different thing from strategic planning.  In that case, look for a consultant skilled in board relationships and structure. As a side note, sometimes I find that nonprofits can get strategic planning paid for and not governance work.  There are some simple ways to include governance work in your strategic planning process, but you need to plan and budget for this at the start and realize that it is two different processes taking place simultaneously.

The “YES”:

There are three valuable reasons to invest in strategic planning, each general enough to bring value to almost any organization at any stage.  You can read about those here

The reasons listed in this article, however, are more specific reasons that fit organizations at specific stages of growth. If you find yourself in one of these stages, you have an opportunity to engage in a planning process more impactful to your organization than any you’ve ever engaged in before. Typically, the environmental scan or data-gathering phase of the work is both internal and external.  In the case of these three goals, the data gathering becomes more deeply focused on one or the other (internal or external). Here is why:

1. We have competing priorities and need clarity on where to focus.

Sometimes, we have too many plates spinning in the air, and it is hard to visualize how one more process (like strategic planning) would be helpful.  If you are having that kind of year, it is ok to extend your current plan out one more year until you have the mental space to engage.  However, if every year is “that kind of year”, it may be due to too many priorities without enough capacity to get them done. A planning process in such conditions should help you determine which priorities matter most to your organization, through some clear decisions making parameters. In this case, the assessment or data-gathering phase of your process should be more internal than external.  Instead of focusing on external perceptions (though these are always helpful to have), you might spend more time talking across staff teams, with customers, with your board, and sometimes with subject matter experts asking questions such as:

  • Which of our priorities is having the greatest impact on those we serve?
  • Which of our priorities is the most underfunded, leaving us in constant scramble mode?
  • Do any of our priorities not fit with our intended impact?
  • Are there certain competencies or systems that we need to be successful in one area that is lacking?

Libbie Landles-Cobb of The Bridgespan Group suggests here that this might be done through four potential lenses, each with its decision-making criteria.  At the start of the process, knowing which one or two lenses are most relevant to you will be important.

2. We need to grow or change and must determine what the right priorities are to do this.

When we already know growth or change is needed, our focus in planning changes slightly.  The questions we must ask and the people we need information from are different.

Change: When change is needed, all systems must align. The focus is again more internal than external.  Rather than asking about your strengths and weaknesses as an organization right now, the focus becomes what are your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats around making sure this change is successful.

  • Why is change needed right now?  Is it due to limited impact, not enough financial resources, etc.?
  • How do you ensure the change needed is financially sustainable?
  • What systems and processes need work to make the change stick?
  • Where is your capacity limited and how might that be addressed?  Capacity might be financials, staff competencies, system resources, etc.

3. We need to understand external perceptions, benchmark best practices, or assess how we fit into our community.  

A planning focus here varies by which of these three is the primary focus, but the assessment phase will have a more external lens than in other strategic planning processes.

External perceptions:  A deeper understanding of external perceptions can be important when there has been a major shift in leadership, when customers/clients are utilizing services, or when you are thinking of taking on something different and you wish to understand if stakeholders would see this as a strong area for you and be likely to support it.  The questions asked and format might not be that different from a typical planning process, but feedback would be sought from more people to deepen the understanding.

Benchmark best practices: I encounter a lot of nonprofits who are not quite sure what benchmark to choose against the outcomes they are measuring, who are unsure of the innovating practices emerging in a particular program in their line or work, or who are struggling with the systems and structure of their organization and wish to understand what systems are working for others in their line of work.  Letts and Grossman write more about this here.

Assess where we fit in the environment:  For some organizations, this is obvious.  For others, there is nothing more helpful than understanding their niche better compared to others, and how the systemic issue they are trying to solve connects with others.  This is most exciting when an organization wishes to dig deeper into solving root causes, they wish to impact.  Root causes can never be solved alone and require other connected organizations who bump into the issue to be working together with them. For example, a program serving women who have just been released from prison must also be working with workforce development organizations, businesses, childcare organizations, etc.  While this can be woven into some of the feedback received during strategic planning and is a great thing to do in conjunction with strategic planning, a much deeper assessment process must take place. Actor Maps and root cause analysis are potentially important tools for such a process.

reasons nonprofits engage in strategic planning