Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Best Laid Plans...: Creating a Strategic Plan So Your Organization Doesn't Go Awry

There may be no more frustrating feeling in the world than that of having just completed a project, only to find out you did it wrong. You can’t help but circle back to conversations you had with co-workers, classmates, or your boss to try to pick out that one moment you missed when they told you what they were looking for. It’s infuriating. And when it happens on a large scale, it can be disastrous. On an organizational level, especially with nonprofits, creating a strategic plan can be a first-line of defense to shield yourself from ruinous miscommunications and a staff unclear of where you’re trying to go and how they’re supposed to get there.

A strategic plan is, simply put, a document put together by an organization to communicate overall goals and a clear path for how to get there. While it seems so simple, it’s actually fairly complicated. It’s a long, involved, cyclical process. But in the end, it’s worth the effort.

When you’re looking to start out on a strategic plan, it’s important to keep in mind:

1. It all starts with who is in the room. Think carefully about who needs to be there -- staff? funders? community leaders? Getting buy-in from these stakeholders can be crucial to a smooth and ultimately successful process. 

2. List out the basics you think you know. If your organization is beholden to any mandates, either formal ones like legislation or less formal requirements, write them down! Do the same with your mission and core organizational values. It can be easy for disagreements to pop up or you to forget something when you’re thinking big picture.

3. Assess where you are. The strategic planning world calls these SWOTs: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.

Some of these will be external: what is the political environment like? Are there trends in the communities you serve you need to be aware of? Is there a new technology or service that could help or harm your work? Your Board may be a good resource if you’re looking for an outside perspective.

Others are internal: which of your processes are efficient? Do you have some core competencies that are particularly well-functioning? Are you missing some skill-set that would be helpful? 

4. Figure out your issues. When you know your SWOTs, you’ll probably find you’re already looking at them as strategic issues. A weakness may be found because you see a change on the horizon. A strength might be discovered because of shifts in your client base. Identify how your SWOTs will likely play out with changes you see on the horizon, and what could happen if you don’t deal with these potentialities.

5. Strategic plans require strategies. Once you know what issues you’re facing, your stakeholders should be itching to talk about how to fix them. But just having a plan to manage these issues isn't enough. You need to make sure you can implement it. It’s absolutely crucial at this point that everyone involved agrees on who is responsible for which actions, who is paying for what, exactly what your timeline is for every action and program change, and how people will be held accountable. Without a clear, agreed-upon vision for how you move forward, your strategic plan will crumble. 

6. It’s a loop!. When your plan has been implemented, it’s time to look at the outcomes. Are they everything you hoped for? Great. Now, more likely, are there things you thought would turn out differently? Probably. It’s time to sit down and start the process over. You should have a new assessment of where you are, and by default new issues you’re facing.

There is no magic process that creates the perfect strategic plan. Sometimes you’ll get stuck on a step. Sometimes (though rarely) your team might agree on everything. It’s an ever-evolving process, and you should be prepared to treat it that way. But at the end of the day, your team will know where they want to go, and how they’re going to try to get there.


Balanced Scorecard Institute. "Strategic Planning Basics." n.d. Web, accessed at: http://balancedscorecard.org/Resources/Strategic-Planning-Basics

Renz, David O, ed. 2010. The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA.