Saturday, March 21, 2015

Strategic Planning: The Process

Strategic planning is incredibly important for nonprofit organizations. It is good, proactive work that establishes a framework for organizational continuity. Strategic plans link decision making with the environment and in doing so, they make an organization more effective. They also allow for: coordination, communication, progress and evaluation in ways that cannot compare to doing so without a strategic plan. 

1. When an organization starts the strategic planning process, it is important that they focus first on their mission. What is the reason for it's existence? Since a mission defines what makes an organization unique, time should be spent finding the right words and phrasing. The right mission will serve as a constant reference point for the organization (Renz, 2010), thus, it should be prioritized.
  • A few good methods for exploring mission include, brainstorming, nominal group technique and the implication wheel. All of these tools allow an organization to work through establishing the mission while including a variety of voices and opinions.
2. The next step is to perform internal and external analyses. Internal analyses examine staff capacity, the volunteer base, financial capital and organizational structure. External analyses evaluate the social and political environments and other outside factors that influence the organization. A focus on ideas and decisions that include what's going on in the external environment and not just within internal communications (Renz, 2010) will elevate the organization and link members to making an impact. Both of these must be explored in depth during the strategic planning process. 

3. Articulating a vision is also an important step in the process and since superior strategic planning prioritizes including all stakeholders, identifying a long-term vision with a larger audience can be a powerful experience. Diverse stakeholders not only bring more talent, more interest and more value to the organization, but they also provide cohesion and commitment (Kotter, 2006) in the long term. A nonprofit might start with one dedicated person, but with the right dialogue and engagement of stakeholders in the long-term planning process, that one will become 15 or 50--who together, are able to make a big impact. 

4. After the base of the plan has been examined, and the mission, external and internal assessments and vision have been defined, a nonprofit should focus on its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOTs). Exploring SWOTs as a group will give problems the appropriate weight and context. SWOTs also allow an organization to recognize conflicting values and overlapping trends. Many nonprofits find that identifying SWOTs allows them to pinpoint weaknesses they thought they had shelved: problems articulated within a different paradigm or ignored all together. 

5. Good strategic planning processes also include--believe it or not--good strategy. Good strategy and well-thought out plans are essential for future success. When the team focuses on questions that are strategic, like: "what unique position are we in" or, "what will our cumulative effect be over time," they will move forward faster and further than if they planned with questions about steps or how-to's. Strategy allows nonprofits to take problems at the right time and in the right sequence. Then, plans conceptualize a way out. Plans provide a timeline with detailed benchmarks for implementation.

6. Lastly, if you start a plan with a clear vision of the expected outcome, you are more likely to succeed (United Way, n.d.). This is because backwards planning has direction, and in turn, takes a more efficient path. Planning evaluation measures from the start is no different. And evaluation is the last important step in the strategic planning process. Setting evaluations measures up front will keep expectations high. Some nonprofits tend to evaluate programs based on the context instead of on the vision, but articulating what the outcome should be in the first place will keep programs honest. Doing so will also make easy work of: forming benchmarks, rooting out misconceptions, and breaking down the abstract into manageable pieces. 

In sum, interacting with the strategic process moves organizations forward. It also shines light thru the darkest of holes. There’s no doubt that time spent upfront with planning is gained back in spades, and gained back for all stakeholders involved. Plus what's so cool about strategic planning is that it achieves the mundane in the process, like; helping individuals understand their colleagues' needs, working styles and personalities; improving methods and modes of communicating deadlines and; clarifying roles, which supports working norms, commitments and assignments for the staff, board and the community. For all of these reasons and many others, strategic planning is an absolute must for any nonprofit organization. 

  • Kotter, J. (2006). Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review. 
  • Renz, David O. and Associates (2010).  Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • “Strategic Planning Process.”  United Way of Dane County.  n.d. Retrieved from