Learn more about the process of nonprofit strategic planning with this guide.

Learn more about how the right donor management software can lead to a more effective nonprofit strategic planning process.

Strategic plans are too often created with great intention, then shoved in a drawer and never looked at again. If this sounds familiar to you, then you’re wasting time creating the plan in the first place. 

Your nonprofit strategic plan shouldn’t just be a formality. It’s an important document that, when created correctly, your nonprofit can use as a basis of growth and development. 

This guide is designed to help your nonprofit get the most out of your strategic plan. With all of the different models and elements involved in your plan’s creation, you’ll need to consider which formats best meet your nonprofit’s needs. Read with us or use the navigation below to jump to the sections most interesting to you:

  1. What is a strategic plan for nonprofits? 
  2. Consider the best strategic plan model for your nonprofit. 
  3. Define the elements of your nonprofit strategic plan. 
  4. Use these 5 steps to build your development strategic plan.
  5. Analyze nonprofit strategic plan templates and examples.

With a well-designed strategic plan, your organization paves a clear path for the future. Whether you’re trying to get through hard times, grow and prosper, or simply achieve a few simple goals, your strategic plan will help you get there.

1. What is a strategic plan for nonprofits? 

Nonprofit strategic planning is the process of identifying elements of a blueprint that will help organizations accomplish their goals.

Nonprofit strategic planning is the process of identifying elements of a blueprint that will help organizations accomplish their goals. It requires your organization to create goals and objectives, then to make decisions about how you’ll reach them. 

Creating your strategic plan isn’t a linear process. Rather, it’s more similar to a flow chart with each element connected to another and leading to a different outcome. 

For example, your organization can increase email outreach after you’ve finalized your website and started collecting email addresses through lead capture forms. You can only expand your programming after you’ve improved your fundraising. And, you can only improve your fundraising by stewarding donors and developing relationships with marketing tools. 

Everything is connected. A good strategic plan takes this into consideration and ensures you have the pathways figured out to meet (and hopefully exceed) your goals for any aspect of your organization. 

2. Consider the best strategic plan model for your nonprofit.

There are a few different ways your organization can focus on organizing your strategic plan. These various nonprofit strategic planning models can be employed by organizations depending on their specific needs and goals. 

Carefully examine the following strategic model plans to decide which one will best suit the needs and ambitions for your organization: 

The different types of strategic planning models include standard, issue-based, organic, real-time, and alignment.

Standard Strategic Planning Model

The standard strategic planning model, also known as the basic planning model, the vision-based model, the goals-based model, and the conventional model, is the most common nonprofit strategic planning model. 

This model is especially effective when your external surroundings are generally calm. The economy is probably stable, your community and country are probably at peace, and your organization is well-established. 

In the midst of a global pandemic while you’re quarantining at home (*cough* Coronavirus *cough*) may not be the most opportune time to implement this strategy. Any disruptions in the atmosphere surrounding your nonprofit could prove to be incredibly detrimental to this strategic planning model. 

Generally, this model follows these steps: 

  • Define your organization’s overall mission and goals. 
  • Set specific, short-term goals you would like to reach to get you closer to that mission.  
  • Create a clear plan to reach those short-term goals, including who is responsible for the success of each goal.
  • Write these actions down and create a schedule to complete each one. 

Here’s an example of what this would look like: Let’s say your organization has an animal shelter. In the next year, your specific short-term goal is to increase the capacity at the shelter by 50 animals and invest in the materials to do so.

In order to do this, your organization will need to increase your fundraising revenue by $10,000 by finding new outreach opportunities and increasing donor retention. 

You may decide to ask one team member to post to social media every day to engage your online audience. Meanwhile, you may assign another person to call new donors to your routine in order to thank them and increase your new donor retention. 

This model is the most common because the climate in which your organization resides is, more often than not, fairly stable. 

Issues-Based Strategic Planning Model

An issues-based strategic planning model can be used when your organization’s internal operations are in more turbulent conditions. For example, if you’re undergoing frequent staff turnover, a change in leadership, or an understaffed time-frame, you may find an issues-based strategic planning model to be the best choice. 

This nonprofit strategic planning model is designed to help your organization get back on track if you seem to have slightly strayed from the path to success.

To implement this strategic planning model, you should conduct the following steps: 

  • Brainstorm the elements that are holding your organization back from success. 
  • Decide how to address each of those elements in order to get back on track. 
  • Carefully monitor your progress and adjust the strategy accordingly. 

Consider the following scenario: Your nonprofit is limited on staff members and struggles to increase your fundraising revenue. You may decide to focus your attention on developing relations with your current supporters and increasing revenue by building donor retention. Additionally, you may want to prioritize expanding your monthly recurring donor list to create more consistent revenue. 

Therefore, you craft a plan to assign each team member that you do have an activity that will help achieve these goals. Instead of rapidly trying to expand, you’ll focus on keeping fundraising activities and revenue steady to give you time to hire new staff members at the organization. 

An issues-based nonprofit strategic planning model is a living plan. Instead of setting it in stone, you have milestones to check in and make adjustments based on your progress and results. 

Organic Nonprofit Strategic Planning Model

The organic or nonlinear nonprofit strategic planning model is best used when there are uncertain external factors. If you’re unsure or feeling unsteady about what the climate will look like in the near future, this model might be a good choice for your organization. 

Using this model, your team comes together to solidify their understanding of the organization’s mission and goals. Each person then comes up with actionable next steps to help get closer to that goal by the next time the group meets. 

Generally, this model looks something like this: 

  • You and your team members go out on a retreat to unify your understanding of the big-picture goals for the organization. 
  • Each individual team member examines their own strengths and decides on an actionable goal they can achieve based on that strength by a certain date. 
  • The team meets together again either quarterly or annually (or as frequently as you’d like) to discuss the progress toward each goal and how it’s impacting the mission. 

For instance, on the retreat, you may find that one team member, Tommy, is especially good at face-to-face communication with people. He’s empathetic and understanding. He would be a great candidate to hold meetings with major donors and establish relationships with them. He may have a goal to grow major giving by 10% within the next year by fostering these relationships. 

This model never looks the same for two organizations. Each team member has inherent strengths, so this model is designed to help your nonprofit make the most of those strengths. 

Real-Time Nonprofit Strategic Planning Model

The real-time nonprofit strategic planning model is best used when your nonprofit is in the midst of a crisis, like an economic recession or national/global catastrophe. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many nonprofits may have found use for this strategic model. 

This model relies on extreme focus for short-term goals that aim to help you weather the storm. Your nonprofit staff members might meet as frequently as every week to discuss your progress for these short-term goals. The model usually looks like this: 

  • Your organization meets frequently as a large group to define short-term objectives for individual team members. 
  • In these team meetings, you discuss whether these goals are met, the day-to-day progress, and any roadblocks your organization members face.
  • After the period of crisis ends, your organization can take inventory of the progress made or damage done, thank team members for their hard work, and create a new strategic plan using a different model. 

Consider the following situation: During the coronavirus pandemic, your nonprofit staff members are working from home, events are cancelled, and your fundraising revenue has dramatically declined. 

In response to the pandemic, you create new short-term goals each week. During the first week, you decide to write a grant proposal. The next week, you hear about the CARES Act and apply for the Payment Protection Program. The week after, you launch a marketing campaign informing supporters of the above-the-line deduction on charitable donations for the year to encourage them to continue giving to your nonprofit. 

As you can see, these goals are small and manageable in a short period of time. Goals are created as responses to the direct impact that external forces are having on your organization’s internal operations. 

Alignment Nonprofit Strategic Planning Model

The alignment nonprofit strategic planning model is best used when your organization has great individual departments or team members, but has trouble when it comes to communication between these departments. 

This model tends to look something like this: 

  • Your organization meets together to learn about the issues each team member faces in their position. 
  • Re-establish the common mission that everyone on your team is working towards. 
  • Come up with little tweaks that can be used to improve the processes of communication at the organization. 

For instance, say your organization has an incredible grant writer, an amazing executive director, a communicative and empathetic major gift officer, and very capable fundraisers. However, they have trouble communicating with one another about the nonprofit’s goals and what each of them is doing to reach them. 

In this case, consider ways to encourage teamwork between members. You may provide an overall fundraising goal for your fundraisers and major gift officer to work together on. Or you may set up check-in meetings for everyone to meet with the executive director and ensure that  the director knows what’s happening and can prioritize accordingly. 

The alignment nonprofit strategic planning model is a great way to set up some new standards for communication and processes to incorporate moving forward as a team.

3. Define elements of your nonprofit strategic plan. 

Before you’re able to start working on your nonprofit strategic plan, you should know the different elements that go into the creation process. Here are the different elements you should be aware of: 

The elements of a nonprofit strategic plan include the overarching organizational plan, the annual business plan, and the development plan.

Overarching Organizational Strategic Plan

Ideally, every three to five years, your board and staff directors will meet to realign on goals and begin the strategic planning process. This plan is a living rough draft based on everyone’s ideas. 

You’ll discuss measurable objectives for the team to reach and draft the priorities for each of these objectives. You may begin with a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis. This can help you start defining goals and start considering which model strategic plan will best work for your organization. 

This stage of the planning process is completely internal but subject to change if major stakeholders are in disagreement. Your overarching organizational strategic plan is a living document that can be used to inform your business strategic plan and should be monitored and adjusted as necessary.

Annual “Business” Strategic Work Plan

Your annual “business” strategic plan is the actionable plan that your organization uses to execute your overarching organizational strategic plan. In this plan, your organization will define different elements such as: 

  • Your mission statement
  • Programs and services you offer
  • Measurable outcomes that you want to achieve

Among your business objectives, there should be one to “generate the voluntary support needed” to see your business plan through to fruition. That’s what your development plan grows out of.

Nonprofit Mission Statement

Your mission statement should dive into why your organization exists. What is it that you’re trying to accomplish? 

As an example, The Smithsonian’s mission statement is: Understanding the natural world and our place in it.  

Nonprofit Objectives

Your nonprofit objectives should be specific and measurable. Some broad strokes for these objectives that you should include as a part of your nonprofit “business” strategic plan are: 

  1. Scope of programs and services
  2. Priorities for types of programs and services
  3. Priorities for target audiences
  4. Locations and facilities
  5. Community planning and organization
  6. Advocacy and public policy
  7. Branding/marketing communications
  8. Resource development

Putting this information together in your business strategic plan shows where your organization hopes to make progress in the impact you have on the community. 

Development Strategic Plan

Your development strategic plan is often also considered your fundraising strategic plan. This is where your organization spells out the aspects and activities that will fund all of your big philanthropic plans. 

Planning out your organization’s event (or virtual event) calendar, your campaign types, and the grants you want to research and write, will help make up the funding plan for your organization. 

For example, you might decide to plan one big nonprofit event per quarter (three total), conduct research to find 5 grants you plan to apply for, and decide when to start a feasibility study to see if you’re ready for the capital campaign needed to fund a large renovation project. 

How Each of These Work Together

As you can see, each of these elements of a strategic plan work together to form a complete strategy for your nonprofit. 

Your overarching strategic plan provides context and the general goals that you want to reach. 

Meanwhile, your business strategic plan creates and defines the objectives that make up those general goals. 

Finally, your development strategic plan answers the question of how you’ll fund these initiatives and achieve them. 

4. Use these 5 steps to build your development strategic plan. 

Now that we’ve laid out all of the types of strategic plans you can choose from and the elements that go into them, it’s time to get a closer look at how your organization can actually start the planning process. 

We’ve already touched on how to create your overarching strategic plan and your business plans, both of which are very specific to your organization itself. Now, we’re going to go over building your nonprofit’s  development strategy plan 

Thee 5 steps to build this plan include: 

1. Know Your Development Plan Goals

The first step is to realize that your development plan goals are directly tied to your goals for philanthropy. Any funds you raise are a means to make this philanthropy happen. The money is not the end goal for your organization, an impact on your mission is.

Decide what your funding needs to look like in order to achieve your goals for philanthropy. Then, break that down into categories for how you’ll raise the money.

For example, of the 100% funding that your nonprofit needs to achieve its philanthropic goals, you may decide to raise: 

  • 50% from charitable individual contributions in your annual fund
  • 20% from your planned giving, legacy, and endowment program
  • 20% from corporate giving programs
  • 10% from grants that you apply for

Of course, this is simply an example. Every nonprofit will have a different breakdown of their fundraising goals based on their current fundraising initiatives and their community. 

2. Get Input From Key Stakeholders

Instead of just telling your development team to go raise the amount of money you need, you should ask your stakeholders for input about your fundraising goals and the impact it will have for your organization.  

Stakeholders might raise alarm if your fundraising amount is too drastically different from last year or if you’re relying on strategies that have been ineffective in the past. 

For example, let’s say your nonprofit has a good track record with grant writing. You’ve won 80% of the grants you’ve applied for, so you decide to dedicate a large portion of your fundraising revenue plan to be raised using grant money. Seems reasonable right? 

Well, your grant writer may bring up the very valid point that you’ve only been that successful because you’re incredibly picky about the type of grant you apply for. While the percentage looks impressive, there aren’t enough grants out there to meet the goal you’ve set. This is great insight and enables you to switch up your strategy to be as successful as possible. 

The different stakeholders you should reach out to include: 

  • Your board members
  • Your staff members
  • Key partners
  • A fundraising consultant

Running the plan by everyone will help you make sure that the goals you’ve set are achievable and manageable by your team. 

3. Determine Your Key Fundraising and Marketing Strategies. 

You may consider doing a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis of your past fundraising to better understand what areas you’re already strong in and what could be improved. 

Set the areas that need improvement at a lower fundraising goal than the aspects of your strategy that you already know you’re strong in. This way, you can try out different strategies to make these elements stronger without as much pressure.

For example, if you know your nonprofit has an incredible major giving program, specify that a large portion of your fundraising will likely come from this avenue. If you know that you could use improvement on your new donor retention rates, you might set that at a lower goal and use this as an opportunity to try out new things like calling new donors and setting up a welcome email series. 

Some of the fundraising and marketing strategies your organization should take into consideration include:

  • Major gift fundraising. Major gift fundraising likely makes up a large portion of your proceeds. If it doesn’t already, this is one area of your strategy you’ll want to put emphasis on improving. 
  • Donor-centered stewardship. Donor stewardship leads to better retention rates and better fundraising results down the line. This ties in well with your marketing strategy and ensuring you’re communicating regularly and effectively with donors. 
  • New donor acquisition and retention. The second donation a donor gives is often called the “golden donation” because most donors lapse after the first gift. After the “golden donation”, there’s about a 60% chance they’ll give again. 
  • Online fundraising. While more revenue probably comes from in-person conversations with major donors, most of your donors probably prefer to give online. It’s convenient so long as your fundraising page is well-optimized.
  • Peer-to-peer fundraising. Peer-to-peer fundraising is a great strategy to attract new donors while raising additional funds from your committed supporters. Leverage the power of your social networks to raise funds using this avenue. 
  • Monthly giving. Recurring gifts are immensely valuable because they’re a consistent source of revenue. If someone sets up a recurring gift, you can probably count on that gift being given for a long period of time and account for that in your future budget. 

Read up on the above strategies and think about which ones are the best options for your nonprofit’s capabilities. This judgment call should be based on your historic success with each avenue. 

4. Establish SMART Objectives

Objectives help support your mission, acting like benchmarks to help you reach the larger goal. When you set objectives for your fundraising goals, you need to make sure they’re SMART: 

  • Specific: target a specific area for improvement.
  • Measurable: quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
  • Assignable: specify who will do it.
  • Realistic: state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.
  • Time-based: specify when the result(s) can be achieved.

For example, let’s say your goal is to: Reach a certain amount of money from individual contributions to your annual fund. 

Your objectives might look something like this: 

  • Objective 1: Acquire 500 new donors through your online fundraising page. 
  • Objective 2: Call 100% of the new donors who give within 90 days of their gift. 
  • Objective 3: Acquire 200 new donors through a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign. 
  • Objective 4: Expand your monthly giving program by 100 donors.
  • Objective 5: Retain 70% of donors from last year. 

Objectives are the how, when, where, and why of your nonprofit goals. Dive into the nitty-gritty of it all when you’re laying them out and writing them down. 

5. Establish Specific Tactics to Support Each Objective

Special supporting tactics should be used to help keep your team accountable for reaching each of the objectives and (eventually) the overall fundraising goals of your development strategic plan. 

Assign each team member an individual job that will help reach these goals. For example, take a look at the following chart: 

These are sample activities that you might include in your development nonprofit strategic plan.

5. Analyze nonprofit strategic plan templates and examples.

Looking at examples and templates are a great place to start in your nonprofit strategic planning process. It can help give you ideas for what a plan generally looks like. 

We’ve compiled a list of resources your nonprofit can use to start this planning process. 

Nonprofit Strategic Plan Template

Generally, strategic plans take the form of something that looks similar to this: 

This is a sample nonprofit strategic plan template.

If you’re looking for more in-depth templates to best plan out different aspects of your strategy, check out these downloadable templates: 

Nonprofit Strategic Plan Examples 

Here are links to some strategic plans from other nonprofit organizations for you to analyze and consider while you plan your own: 

Between templates and examples, your organization should be prepared to structure and create your own nonprofit’s plan. 

Strategic planning for many organizations is simply a formality. Development or executive directors put together a plan only to stick it in a drawer and never review it again. 

Don’t just check off the “strategic plan” box for your nonprofit. Instead, use the information and resources in this guide to create a comprehensive and valuable plan that you’ll actually use to grow your organization. 

Want to learn more about effective planning and nonprofit management? Check out these additional resources: 

Learn more about how the right donor management software can lead to a more effective nonprofit strategic planning process.

Jay Love

Jay Love

Co-Founder & Chief Relationship Officer at Bloomerang
A 30+ veteran of the nonprofit software industry, Jay Love co-founded Bloomerang in 2012. He currently serves on the board of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and is the past AFP Ethics Committee Chairman.
Jay Love