Monday, March 16, 2015

Setting the Direction with Strategic Planning

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.
-       Lewis Carroll

This paraphrase from Alice in Wonderland is an often-cited quote, and originates from a conversation between Alice and the Cat. It has resonance, because it is true for many aspects of life: agency requires informed choices. It all comes down to a sense of direction. You need to know where you’re going, in order to take the necessary steps to get there. Strategic planning is the process that will enable you to do this.

First of all strategic planning forces a nonprofit, or any other organization for that matter, to explicitly frame the most important issues and thereby take a stand and act on it. Initiating a strategic planning process will help illuminate and attend to possible disagreements concerning mission, vision, or shorter term goals within the organization. If kept in the dark, these will only lead to friction and fractions possibly moving in different directions, resulting in the nonprofit getting nowhere.

The first step is to revisit the mission. This part can be left out if it is the first time a nonprofit takes on strategic planning. This process should include stakeholders and will ideally spark a dialogue that will enhance the feeling of inclusion (Bryson, 235). Strategic planning ensures that everyone is heard and facilitates commitment and continued support to the process. Different techniques such as the Implications Wheel or Nominal Group Technique can facilitate this.

Considering the mission, which could be translated into a particular nonprofits unique reason for existence, an analysis of the external environment, in which the nonprofit is situated, and its internal capabilities should be conducted before establishing a vision (United Way, 2). The vision should provide everyone with a sense of where the nonprofit is going and sets the direction for more concrete goals and objectives, that will be set later in the process.

Next up SWOT’s is an excellent tool to for an overall assessment of the nonprofit. This will provide the framework for formulation of strategic issues the nonprofit should develop a strategy for its response to (United Way, 3). It is important to highlight the fact that even though this seems as a step-by-step process, it is often necessary to work iteratively and especially to ensure feedback to every step of the strategic planning, so adjustments can be made when revisiting each step.

Finally concrete, measureable goals should be a result of the strategic planning. This will enable everyone to monitor the progress and create the sense of direction needed in order to map out the path to completion of established goals. It should be considered how to create reward systems that will support this in a constructive way. As such this will “make the challenge inescapable for everyone in the company” (Hamel & Prahalad, 68).

Another benefit of strategic planning is that it increases effectiveness in the organization.  With an increasing pressure for efficiency, accountability, and results, strategic planning is a necessary tool to ensure future viability of the nonprofit (Ebrahim, 101). This will get rid of unnecessary processes and engage the leadership. Keeping it simple is key to effectiveness, and strategic planning will support this.

As many benefits as there are to strategic planning, you can be sure that the environment is going to change (Brown, 214). Whether it is legislation, a crisis, shift in attitudes and support, turnover, or that you learn underway that what you are doing isn’t working as planned. One element that should be included in the planning process is to visualize what could go wrong and how the organization would respond to adopt. Hopefully this will enable the organization to act faster and adjust to a changing environment.


Brown, William A. "Strategic Management." Robert D. Herman & Associates. The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management 3. Ed. David Renz. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. 206-229.

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

Ebrahim, Alnoor (2010). The Many Faces of Nonprofit Accountability. In: Renz, David O, ed. 2010. The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA.

Hamel, G. and Prahalad, C.K., “Strategic Intent,” Harvard Business Review, May-June 1989, page 66.

United Way. Strategic Planning Process, page 1-7.