nonprofit strategic planning models

When a client asks for help with their strategic plan, I start with two related questions: How do you intend to do this and what’s your organization’s current state?

That’s in large part because a lot of folks think there is only one way to put together a strategic plan. But that would be like shopping for a coat and finding coats only come in one size and style.

Just as not everyone can wear the same size coat, nonprofit organizations shouldn’t lock themselves into only one of the various nonprofit strategic planning models. You have to pick one that fits your needs.

Before I begin, I need to give credit where credit is due. 

I have not created any new nonprofit strategic planning models or approaches here. As a consultant and planning facilitator, my toolkit holds information from the amazing thought-leaders our sector has.

That includes concepts and ideas from Carter McNamara at the Free Management Library, David LaPiana at LaPiana & Associates, Marvin Weisbord & Sandra Janoff at the Future Search Network and the people at Organization Development Network. Countless individuals and organizations like those I just mentioned are responsible for most of the ideas found in today’s blog post.

So, let’s talk about your organization’s “weather forecast” and what that means for your desire to do a little strategic planning.

First and most typically known, if not used, is the standard strategic planning model. I’ve also heard this referred to as the basic planning model, vision-based or goals-based approach, and conventional model. 

This model works when your external world is calm. To extend the coat and weather metaphor, you live in a mild climate. No clouds of chaos. No stormy recessions. 

The community and your supporters feel comfortable with what you’re doing. Revenue streams are steady. Both board and staff are relatively stable. More importantly, your nonprofit clearly understands what it needs to work on in the coming years. 

In short, conditions are right for letting a big picture vision and goals discussions drive the plan.

I’m sure you are very familiar with this planning model. Assessment work leads to visioning which results in goals setting. You develop strategies for each goal. Ultimately, you create action steps for each strategy. 

But what if your nonprofit finds itself in a less than temperate climate, with pressing concerns on the horizon and little in the way of assets? Then you may want to consider utilizing an issues-based strategic planning model.

What are those big issues faced by your organization? Rapid growth? Funding instability? Staff or board turnover? Recruiting volunteers? All of the above?

Plan accordingly around what you decide are the most significant matters. Create consensus around a few measurable goals. 

Craft a handful of strategies for each goal. Create action steps for each strategy. 

No long-term vision drives this type of strategic plan. You’re likely being very tactical and taking things one year at a time.

An organic or nonlinear strategic planning model may best serve your nonprofit when operating in uncertain times when external conditions can and do frequently change. Back to the metaphor, your climate mirrors fall or spring in Denver, where it can go from 80 and sunny one day, to 20 and snowing the next.

As such, those involved in putting together an organic plan not only work together to reach consensus on what a desired future looks like, but also take individual responsibility for certain tasks to help reach that desired future state.

While there are a variety of organic planning models, two of the more common whole systems approaches I’ve seen used are Search Conference© and Future Search©.

To create this type of plan, first hold a conference or retreat. Make sure you recruit attendees who represent the whole system — staff, management, donors, volunteers, community leaders and the demographics of the community. 

At this multi-day retreat, participants find common ground through a series of facilitated exercises focused on the past, present and future. From these discussions spring potential projects. 

Next, project teams focus on developing short-term goals where individuals commit to very actionable items to accomplish before the next meeting. 

Some groups hold quarterly check-in meetings. Others meet annually. There is no right answer. Those project teams set their own rules. 

Remember, this planning model isn’t linear. It’s organic. But it’s probably not vegan. I’ve seen too much cheese and lunch meat served at these type of planning conferences.

If your nonprofit finds the rough, stormy climate from the outside world impacting it internally, consider using a real-time strategic planning model.

That was the case for many during the last decade’s Great Recession, when the economic downturn left many organizations in crisis mode. With real-time strategic planning, the emphasis becomes what to do between now and the next meeting, which could literally be just a few weeks away.

Weathering such a storm means keeping track of and adjusting to how these outside forces affect your nonprofit, from its cash flow to what might be increased demand for its services.

I’ve typically reached for the real-time strategic planning model in my consultant toolbox when working with organizations in crisis. Such planning is for a shorter timeframe and looks to get past the current tumultuous climate.

If you find your climate not quite what it should be, the alignment planning model works well.

Stretching this post’s metaphor, different parts of your organization may seem sunny in their own part of your collective sky, but somehow clouds appear in the sky as a whole. 

Back to plain English: You’re finding that a lack of communication between its parts has your organization out of sync.

If that’s the case, the alignment planning model should bring greater efficiencies to your nonprofit by making sure all its parts are working in harmony. 

As an example, I once worked with a very healthy organization that had a great program team, a phenomenal executive director, a wicked smart board and a very talented grant writer. The challenge they faced as they approached strategic planning was none of these assets interfaced well with each other.

The grant writer was great at what they did. Proposals were well-written and funding was plentiful.

But according to program staff, even though the programs were well-run and clients were obviously benefiting, the grant deliverables and outcomes were challenging and perhaps even unrealistic. 

While homework help was great, the funder expected to see improving grades and not just completed assignments. They also were looking for long-term outcomes like kids transforming into “life-long learners.” Because that was what was promised to them.

In the administrative wing of the organization, there were other concerns. The executive director worried about how many grants were being written for just one aspect of the organization’s operations. After all, their after-school program wasn’t just about academics. Who would pay for the snacks, gym activities, and character education programming? Even more importantly, there was overhead costs to worry about that many grant providers didn’t seem to cover.

In the boardroom, board members struggled with the idea of restricted funding versus unrestricted funding and what it meant for the organization’s overall financial health. While the bank account fund balance seemed healthy, they could not understand why paying the electricity and heating bills were such a struggle. They just didn’t understand why the cash from the homework assistance grants couldn’t be used for overhead or for payroll for staff not working in the learning center.

Using an alignment planning model means putting everyone in the same room and getting everyone to understand everyone else’s issues. Most importantly, a plan develops whereby everyone commits to building (or tweaking) systems to help address organizational challenges. 

In short, before embarking on your journey to build any sort of strategic plan, take a step back. Ask yourself which model would best meet your needs. Consider how chaotic or stable the outside world currently is and how that impacts your nonprofit. Look internally and remember who is around your table.

To conclude the metaphor, make sure you have the right type of coat, or coats, for the climate in which your nonprofit operates. Because choosing a model that fits your needs before engaging in planning will keep you from getting wet, or from being left out in the cold, cold world.

Nonprofit Sustainability

Erik Anderson

Erik Anderson

Fundraising Coach & Organizational Development Consultant at The Healthy Non-Profit
Erik Anderson, CBCS is a consultant and coach who specializes in nonprofit fundraising and organizational development issues. In his 20+ years of working on the frontline of the nonprofit sector, as an internal consultant for Boys & Girls Clubs of America and currently as an external consultant for his company The Healthy Non-Profit LLC, he has helped raise tens of millions of dollars in support. He has also helped countless CEOs, fundraising professionals and board of directors develop bigger organizational muscles and grow their sense of sustainability.