Thursday, March 12, 2015

Fail to plan, plan to fail - let's plan!

Does everyone in your organization know where it is heading, why it is heading there and how? Maybe not. Imagine a tree. Would it survive if its roots were missing? Would the stem be stuck to the ground? Certainly not. Still, leaders might aim at growing nonprofits without roots.

It is perhaps tempting to give it a try, reassured by the fact that most of your colleagues are trying their very best to make the world a better place. It might work for a while. If it is not storming outside. As a leader, it is your responsibility to look beyond the daily operations, and into the future. The process of creating a strategic plan is an effective tool to align the organization and set the direction. Having it written down increases the probability that  everyone is on the same page (L. Howard, personal communication, February 3, 2015).

1. Identify key stakeholders

The primary step is to determine who should be around the table. According to Howard, it is ideal to include everybody, both because multiple perspectives are value adding, but also to get buy-in. (L. Howard, personal communication, February 3, 2015). Even if everyone cannot participate throughout the process, make sure to involve and collect input.

2. Develop a vision (the crown)

This is the crown of the organization. It describes why the organization exists, what it does and how it creates value for society.  The vision should be long-term, and it should be used as a linchpin, guiding all the organization’s decisions and activities. (Bryson, 2010)  

3. Conduct a SWOT analysis

This is the process of assessing the organization’s internal and external environments. The internal environment is within the organization’s control, making up the strengths and weaknesses of the organization. A strength can be a scaleable model, and a weakness might be that the organization lacks long-term thinking (luckily, a thoroughly worked out strategic plan will deal with that). The external assessment includes determining opportunities (such as a growing need for the organization’s services) and threats (for example decreasing donor allocation of money to cause).(Bryson, 2010)

4. Define strategic issues 

This step makes sure that everyone is aboard with what the organization has to deal with. We focus on strategic issues, decisions that link the organization to its environment. Examples include issues that can alter the organization’s core business – major changes in products, services, customers and clients. It can also include issues that need immediate response, or certain areas that do not have to be dealt with immediately, but must be monitored carefully. (Bryson, 2010)

5. Develop a strategy (the trunk)

This step can concisely be described as “identifying a valuable problem or opportunity, and a coherent set of actions that address it” (Posen, 2015). Put in other words, we start from the defined issues and then make sure we link a coherent set of rhetoric, choices, actions and consequences to address these (Bryson, 2010). The strategy is the tree’s trunk, connecting the crown to the ground.

6. Make a plan for how the strategy should be implemented (the roots)

How should these strategies take root? We want to make action plans to know who is accountable for what, what results should be achieved, milestones and how communication should be managed. (Bryson, 2010)

7. Evaluate

To learn from and update strategies that don’t work and leverage strategies that do - we have to evaluate the strategies themselves as well as the process of setting and carrying them out. (Bryson, 2010) Does the tree stand steady even if it is stormy outside? 

After evaluation, it is probably time to start planning for the next strategic planning process (Bryson, 2010). The external environment is constantly evolving, and we want an organization that can continuously improve to survive in the long run.

United Way of Dane County. Strategic Planning Process
Bryson, John M. 2010. Strategic Planning and the Strategy Planning Circle. In: Renz, David O. The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA.
Posen, Hart E. 2015. Welcome to Strategy [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from: