nonprofit strategic planning

You, your board, your staff or other key stakeholders at your nonprofit might be itching to put together a new strategic plan.

After all, a strategic plan covers the why and how of your being and encompasses broad strategic goals and strategies. It defines what an organization should do within the next two to five years.

And your plan seems to be approaching its “best if used by” date. 

But before your nonprofit ventures into the nonprofit strategic planning process, remember that even if your existing plan is aging, there are times not to go down this path.

It’s a discussion I’ve had with several nonprofits, including a talk with a suburban Chicago organization where the CEO was on the fence about retiring.

Uncertainty in key positions in your organization is one of those times when it might not be best to embark on creating a strategic plan.

In this case, with the CEO considering retirement, it would have been great to have the institutional knowledge and experiential input she could contribute. 

On the other hand, I knew that if the CEO’s replacement was not involved in creating the new strategic plan, their input wouldn’t be considered. They wouldn’t be as directly invested in the plan as they might be.

On an imaginary third hand, if this nonprofit put together a plan ASAP after hiring the new CEO came, it’s possible they might not have hired somebody with the right traits, skills and experiences needed to move the organization from point A to point B. 

Ugh! Whoever said “timing is everything” wasn’t kidding.

So, for this particular nonprofit, we held a conversation about planning.

To make sure we were all on the same page, to start that discussion, I sent a memo covering that night’s topic. It began by defining what a strategic plan is as well as what long-range, operational and business plans are. 

I noted the group was already working on putting together a board development & governance plan and a resource development plan.

Then I referenced a whitepaper published by The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business listing other instances when agencies typically reach for the nonprofit strategic planning tool and shouldn’t do so. That list serves as the basis for the following no-nos:

Don’t make a strategic plan if your nonprofit is financially unstable.

There’s no use planning anything if the money might not be there to pay for what you hope to do. Creating a short-term, tactical plan to address stabilizing your finances is a BIG YES. Putting together a 5-year strategic plan is a BIG NO.

Don’t create a strategic plan if your board of directors is disengaged, disinterested or in transition.

If your board members aren’t doing what they’ve agreed to do and/or don’t understand their roles and responsibilities, then wait to plan. The Nonprofit Center suggests cleaning up the board and investing in board development first. Planning is an engagement activity and engaging the wrong people will result in a written plan that doesn’t get implemented.

Don’t come up with your strategic plan when there is a ton of tension on your board.

Conflict makes for good novels, movies and TV shows, but high drama probably won’t lead to a good strategic plan. The process of designing a strategic plan can expose and heighten disagreements and personality clashes. Address these differences before you begin. Refereeing arguments isn’t fun. In fact, it’s downright masochistic. So, create rules for engagement, and focus on consensus.

Don’t start on your strategic plan if you have a board set in its ways and resistant to change.

Strategic plans can mean a fresh take on what you’ve been doing and/or having new ideas and new goals suited to the times. Board members who don’t get this just get in the way of moving ahead. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to create a strategic plan with a roomful of people constantly saying things like, “We don’t do things that way” or “We tried that, and it didn’t work.”

Don’t plunge into nonprofit strategic planning when the executive director you have isn’t right for the job. 

The Nonprofit Center suggests letting go of that person and either hiring a new executive director, appointing an interim CEO or paying a consultant to engage in planning. You can use the new plan as a roadmap for hiring a person with the skills needed to implement the doings of the document. 

Another good resource in my toolbox that I mentioned was The Community Foundation of Monterey County’s Preliminary Readiness Assessment for Strategic Planning.

The assessment provides a checklist of 15 factors to consider when deciding if the time is right for strategic planning. 

A few of my favorite considerations found there include whether those involved are aware of and able to make the time commitment strategic planning takes; the level of community involvement and communication with your nonprofit; the role data plays in your organization; and the cohesiveness of the group.

Let’s go back to that suburban Chicago organization that wanted to hire me to help them with strategic planning. I provided them with a framework to think through their readiness. 

In addition to considering their organization’s current state, I asked them to pay attention to their intuition. 

Finally, I also reminded them (as I noted above) that coming up with a strategic plan is an engagement activity. This, of course, meant they would want the right people at the table, people who feel invested in their community and invested in what their nonprofit provides to that community.

Only after considering all of the above should you think about hiring a consultant to help put together a plan, I explained.

I know you’re probably wondering what happened next.

Well, I didn’t get the job. They decided to hit the pause button on their strategic planning efforts. Not surprisingly, when I checked back with them a year later, their executive director had retired, and they were engaged in a search process to replace her.

Truth be told, I was happy for this organization. They didn’t waste a lot of money on a planning consultant like me. They didn’t waste the time of their busy board members, volunteers, donors and staff. 

So, I guess the moral to the story is . . . 

It is important to be strategic about the timing of your nonprofit strategic planning process. Not doing so could take your organization down a road to a destination no one expected.

That’s how you’ll have a safe trip!

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.