Picture this: You’re sitting by the window at your monthly board meeting. You can tell it’s a beautiful, sunny day outside through the glass. Your board and advisers have decided to create your nonprofit’s strategic plan, but there is nothing you want to do less than spend your day — or likely several days — going through the planning process. To you, strategic planning is boring, time-consuming and difficult to put to use.
You’re not alone if you resent the idea of strategic planning. However, a simple and effective plan is essential in determining success.
You can transform your strategic planning process into a simple, ongoing and effective process. Let’s review some of the top reasons why you may be struggling to get your plan off the ground and create real impact.
Your Executive Director Won’t Champion the Process and Promote Accountability
Strong leadership is at the apex of any great nonprofit. However, your executive director is likely juggling many responsibilities — completing grant applications, running staff meetings, and engaging in marketing activities. In this urgent and pressure-filled environment, leaders may feel like they’re reacting to what’s happening now instead of preparing for what’s next.
In strategic planning, it is not the executive director’s job to execute every area of the plan; it’s impossible for one person to do. Instead, the executive director’s primary strategic planning role is to serve as the champion of the process. While the champion is still involved in the work, their role should be to delegate roles to the team, regularly remind team members of their responsibilities, ensure that the plan is regularly measured and reported, and maintain a positive and supportive attitude.
Another important aspect is to appoint a co-champion to keep the executive director accountable. It’s a lot like having a workout partner that makes sure that you take no days off. These two individuals complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses and create a leadership pair that leads by example for the rest of the team.
Attitude and tone are key to making you more successful. By confidently leading your strategic planning process and executing effective tactics, you are a champion.
Strategic Planning Is Perceived as a Tedious Event, Not a Process
If you imagine strategic planning as an annual event wherein your board, advisers and staff engage in tedious discussions that don’t lead to results, you’re going about it wrong. Without a discipline toward regularly reviewing, measuring, and updating your plan, you and your team quickly become bored by the plan, you get distracted by other pressing issues, and the plan gets shelved. If you don’t hit your goals, you lose faith in strategic planning, and you’re less likely to do it again.
Instead of only creating a strategic plan, create a strategic planning process. Your strategic plan isn’t just a binder on a shelf; it encompasses your organizational culture, leadership and operations. Your strategic plan is cycled through annually, and the plan is reviewed, measured, and revised quarterly or even more frequently.
I recommend the methodology called The CAPE Cycle, which typically structures your goals at an annual cadence in a four-step planning process.
- Champion. Appointing a champion (or preferably, two co-champions) to lead the process is essential to motivate your organization.
- Assess. Before creating your plan, you must have a finger on the pulse of
your nonprofit and the environment in which it operates. This data and input determine what aspects of your nonprofit you should focus on in your plan.
- Plan. This is where all of your data and input come together. (I’ll discuss what your plan should look like in the next section.)
- Execute. The last step is the largest portion of the cycle and where many planning processes fall short. Here, your team should execute your goals, regularly measure success and adjust the plan when things change.
Your Plan Is Too Complex
Several years ago, I came across a beautiful strategic plan. It was spiral-bound, full of lovely pages, but was an overwhelming 42 pages long. However, imagine my surprise when I found out that this ambitious document was created for a tiny nonprofit with an annual budget of $25,000 and a very part-time executive director. The consultants had meant well, but led the group through a process that engaged 90 stakeholders, included 13 major strategies, and took nine months to finalize. It was complete overkill.
In contrast, I think James Hollan excellently describes a simple and effective strategic plan in his article “The Perils of Strategic Planning”:
“One of the very best plans I’ve ever seen in the nonprofit sector was just two pages. At the top of page one was a brief statement that basically said, ‘We are doing a very good job and we believe that these three things will make this organization even better. We believe they are things we can accomplish next year.’
“Below that were three goals for the coming year with the names of staff and board members in charge of accomplishing those goals, a very rough timeline for each, and a goal number for success. The second page listed two additional goals for the following year with staff and board members assigned to each with the understanding that they were “B” list items. It would be nice to accomplish them but not mandatory. The plan could actually have been collected on one page, but they used two for graphic clarity. This national organization had an annual operating budget of more than $10 million, and it consistently received very high satisfaction ratings from it members."
Hollan’s story reflects the same two-section strategic plan I recommend. The point is that a simple approach will work faster, allow more flexibility, be easier to communicate and yield better results. The two-section plan is also helpful for nonprofits that feel that they have too much on their plate.
Plenty of nonprofits feel pain when executing their strategic plan. You may be unsure if starting the process is worth your time. You also may have tried strategic planning and not seen the results you’d hoped for. Regardless of the situation, I hope this guidance will help you create a flexible and simple strategic planning process that works for your organization.
Eric Ryan has dedicated 25 years of his professional life to service. He is the co-founder of Mission Met, a company devoted to making strategic planning easier and more effective for nonprofit and organizational leaders around the world. Although he has focused on serving small nonprofits, Eric has also consulted with numerous corporations and government entities.
In addition to his consulting work, he has started one nonprofit, been an executive director, and served on several boards as both treasurer and board chair.
He led the creation of nonprofit strategic planning software, Mission Met Center, and is the author of "Mission Met: Proven Strategic Planning Guidance to Help You Build a Financially Secure and Impactful Nonprofit".