What is Strategic Planning and Why Does it Matter for Your Nonprofit?

Hero wanders aimlessly
As nonprofit leaders, a strategic planning process can either wear us out and waste our time, or help us streamline priorities and increase our impact.

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A few key ingredients will help you make the most of strategic planning.

When talking about something as important as strategic planning, it helps to ground ourselves in a basic definition.  What is it? While we often think of it as a final document we use (or sometimes stick on a shelf) to guide us, it is really a process.   In one phase of the process, you end up with that document.

What: Here is my definition which is grounded in the literature: Strategic planning is a process through which organization leaders take a step back from day-to-day work to consider where they wish to go in the next few years, and to agree on clear goals, strategies, and metrics for getting there.

After years of leading organizations through or within strategic planning, I believe that regardless of what process you choose, a few key ingredients are essential for success:

  • You must first be clear on why you wish to engage in the process.  What do you hope to get from it?
  • It must start with your vision and mission statements, ensuring that they ground your work, as they always should.
  • The process must engage input and approval from the board of directors.
  • At different depths in different roles, the process must incorporate input from staff at all levels.
  • The amount of external input you seek should match your organization’s stage of development.
  • As much as possible, you should decide on your goals based on data.
  • No goal should be final until you make sure you have the resources needed to take action on it (enough money, staff capacity, the right systems/process, etc.)
  • No goal should be final until you have determined how you will measure progress on it.
  • If your plan is to be helpful in anyway, as you approve it, there must be a process in place to make sure it becomes your guide for the next three to five years……………or for whatever length of time the plan goals dictate.

Why:  The first bullet for successful strategic planning above is knowing the why for your own organization. This is a personal why that has to do with your organization’s stage of development or leadership needs. There are, however, three key reasons why strategic planning is always helpful.

  1. The most important reason to engage in strategic planning is that the Executive Director/CEO as hero leads to burnout and results in wandering aimlessly in the desert for longer than needed.  An organization is only effective when we have a TEAM of heroes, working toward clear goals. That means the board and the staff team. Any strategic planning process should help to ensure this.
Hero with no strategic planning

2. The second reason strategic planning is important is alignment.  Never underestimate the power of getting everyone singing from the same sheet of music- your board and your staff!  Johnathan Trevor and Barry Varcoe write about testing your organization alignment, with their chart below showing just how important alignment really is!

HBR Trevor the Best Companies are the Best Aligned

When goals are agreed upon in strategic planning at all levels, part of that agreement must include ensuring the capabilities to take action on the goals, and assurance that the goals are aligned with the organization’s mission.  For example, if leadership decides to growth fundraising revenue by $500,000 in the next year but the budget does not allow for a development person and nothing is coming off the executive director’s plate to make it possible, everyone must agree together how the organization will reasonably have the capabilities to achieve this goal.

3. The third and final reason that strategic planning is important is engagement.  This is both employee engagement and board engagement.  It is important to note that strategic planning can, in fact, isolate people in the organization and lower their engagement. This is why strategic planning must include feedback from all levels, clarity around how the feedback will be used/how the goals will be determined, and assurance that resources needs will be considered as goals are set.

Modified Maslow's Heirarchy

Many of us are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  The pyramid below from BDC’s human resources department shows what this might look like in terms of employee engagement.  While strategic planning alone can’t address all the needs as you go up the pyramid, it can support a clear understanding of expectations and build alignment, two important factors in engagement.

Executive Directors are always looking for ways to engage the board of directors in the work, and if a board of directors does not fully understand and buy-in to long range goals and strategies, this engagement is unlikely to happen.  Additionally, if the board doesn’t engage in this process, it becomes difficult for them to meet their fiduciary duties.  So, as an Executive Director or Board Chair, this is your chance!  Make sure you make use of a few board members in a workgroup to help inform the process and design the process so the full board has the opportunity to engage in productive, motivating dialogue around what is to come.

Hero wanders aimlessly