How to Win the Strategic Planning Battle
As part of philanthropic advising for a Bay-Area funder, I’ve gotten a front row seat into the strengths and challenges of almost 20 small- to medium-sized nonprofits. This post and the next few will share learning from this work.
How well do you handle frustration?
The other day my daughter and I were playing Connect Four. She won the first game and smiled triumphantly. Then I won the second one. And the third. And the fourth. And at this point, she stamped her foot, pounded her arms, picked up all of the checkers and threw them around the room.
I guess the game was over.
None of us likes to put ourselves in situations in which we feel unsuccessful. For many of us, the response is to metaphorically turn the board over and scatter the pieces.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently as I’ve been thinking about the lack of strategic planning in many organizations.
As part of recent work with the Ken Birdwell Foundation, I’ve run an online capacity assessment (iCAT) tool for almost 20 small- to medium-sized nonprofit organizations in the Bay Area. The iCAT evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of individual organizations, generating a list of top organizational strengths and challenges. It also generates a list of recommendations of suggested areas of investment in order to improve the organization. These range from leadership coaching, to strategic planning, to fundraising training, to many other areas. It does this by comparing online survey responses of staff and board members with responses from staff and board from thousands of other organizations, as well as drawing on years of research about nonprofit organizations.
With regard to strategic planning, most of the organizations we assessed are not using a strategic plan to guide their work. A few are, but these are in the minority.
My finding is consistent with the “2019 NonProfit PRO Leadership Impact Study,” which found that almost three-quarters of nonprofits do not have a strategic plan for their fundraising activities.
It could be that strategic planning feels so difficult and overwhelming that nonprofits hesitate to start. Organizational leadership knows that they should be doing it and that it’s good for them. They just don’t find the time or money to actually do it.
Why did the organizations in our assessments not have strategic plans?
- Some organizations created strategic plans that were no longer applicable, if they had ever been: The executive director of one organization shared that the strategic plan had been created before he joined the organization. The plan had been mostly created by the organization’s board without staff input. Without staff ownership, the strategic plan sat on the shelf.
- For some organizations the last strategic plan expired, and there wasn’t time or money to create a new one: One organization involved diverse stakeholders and deep listening in their planning and knew that it would be a slow process to create a new strategic plan; another calculated the costs of taking everyone off their day-to-day work and couldn’t justify this.
Even without a strategic plan, some of these organizations are performing at a high level. For several, the assessment revealed strong performance in decision-making but low performance in strategic planning. In other words, the organizations are making excellent decisions on a day-to-day basis. These just are not connected to larger trends, threats, goals and plans.
If most organizations aren’t doing strategic planning, should we give up on it?
We need strategic thinking and strategic planning because the world is constantly changing. Strategic thinking involves exploring the ways that the world is changing and how this impacts our work going forward. In the extreme, when you’re not paying attention, you risk becoming a dinosaur. (And if you don’t believe me, ask the producers of phone booths, Betamax, VHS or compact discs…)
The bottom line is that we need to find a way to take “small bites” toward habits of strategic planning without becoming so overwhelmed that we choke.
And going back to Connect Four: Every time my daughter plays, she gets better. One of these days she’s going to beat me sometimes… and then beat me a lot of the time. So much of life is staying in the game even when it feels hard and we don’t yet know how to find the winning moves.
If you’re not sure how to start strategic planning, try this:
- Consider separating “strategic” and “planning” into different phases. First, what information can you gather about the people you serve and your external environment that would help you do your work better? And second, how can this learning be incorporated into longer-term goals or saying no to work that is no longer mission-aligned?
- If you do not have the time or resources to create a three- to five-year strategic plan, consider allocating a day off-site for your board and senior staff members to come together to create a one-year plan.
With board and staff, explore the rewards that your organization might be able to access by having a strategic plan. What opportunities for funding, collaboration or partnership would open up by doing strategic planning? Clarifying these opportunities may deepen commitment to strategic planning.
Dr. Renee Rubin Ross is founder and principal of The Ross Collective, a consulting firm that designs and leads inclusive, participatory strategic planning processes for nonprofit organizations.