nonprofit planning success

In any profession, certain words and phrases provoke reactions from cringing to shrieking, eye rolling to angst. For many in organizational leadership, these include audit, grant report, and restricted funding, to name just a few. And…. strategic planning. Perhaps scarred by a past planning effort, many nonprofit leaders and board members describe lengthy, laborious, and ultimately ineffectual processes that failed to translate their organizational vision into reality. But there is hope, and a path to a far more energizing and effective plan!  

A nonprofit strategic plan serves as a roadmap to enable an organization to set priorities and measure progress. It informs the direction of the organization, generates heightened engagement and ownership of the mission, and inspires staff, board, volunteers, and the community to envision bold possibilities.   

While there arguably may have been a time in the past when lengthy 5 – 10 year plans that took up to a year to produce were relevant, the landscape for nonprofits now changes far too quickly and far too dramatically to rely on this approach. Instead, many highly effective nonprofits have switched to a more agile approach of strategic visioning paired with robust annual action planning. While the final plan document may take a variety of forms, I have found that there are three keys at the outset to chart an effective and engaging strategic visioning course and help with nonprofit planning success:

1. Purpose:

Starting with the “why” enables an organization to understand the context and environment in which the planning will occur. Has a previous plan term expired? Is the organization preparing for an expansion? Is there an internal or external challenge confronting the organization? Gaining clarity and understanding among the board and senior leadership team as to the purpose of the planning is a vital first step to an effective process.  

2. People:

Any planning process is only as effective as the leaders who will embrace and own it. Who will you include in the planning? Who will “own” the planning effort? How will you capture the critical perspectives of internal and external stakeholders? Who will facilitate the process? Put a slightly different way, another question I routinely ask board leaders at the outset of a visioning process is, “Who isn’t currently in the room who should be? Who of the board will remain in the room after the initial retreat to co-own the creation of the plan with the CEO?” A universal truth of board governance, and planning, is that the people in the room determine the questions that are asked.  

3. Process:

Defining the process, or series of steps, to lead to nonprofit planning success requires thoughtfulness and intentionality. Engaging with a skilled facilitator or nonprofit consultant to work with you to craft this process can allow the board and senior leadership team to be fully present and actively participate in the plan creation, rather than bogged down in the facilitation of the process. In consultation with their facilitator, nonprofit leaders should evaluate the planning processes that have worked well with their team in the past and the type of process needed to confront the challenges of today. Will your board and key staff team respond better to a full-day retreat or a series of shorter sessions? Will you need to revisit the mission, vision, and values of the organization or do they still reflect the organization’s north star?        

Against a backdrop of countless challenges for nonprofit leaders and board members, achieving nonprofit planning success can sometimes seem like a daunting undertaking. However, if you begin with the 3 P’s of Purpose, People, and Process, you can set your organization on a path towards a successful outcome.

Nonprofit Sustainability

Gregory Nielsen
Gregory Nielsen, President and CEO of Nielsen Training & Consulting, is an experienced nonprofit CEO and consultant committed to helping leaders and organizations excel. Gregory has earned the prestigious BoardSource Certificate in Nonprofit Board Consulting. He is also a frequent speaker on nonprofit leadership and governance and hosts the podcast “Nonprofit Vision.”