Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Secret to Leading Successful Nonprofit Agencies: Strategic Planning

The Secret to Leading Successful Nonprofit Agencies: Strategic Planning

As nonprofit managers who are trying to answer utterly complex questions, I know most of you must be thinking: Who has time to plan for the future? Where would I even start?

Obviously these are valid questions that many nonprofits have a hard time answering.

So let me break strategic planning down into 7 manageable steps.  

But first let me explain why you should even care about strategic planning. Strategic planning attempts to answer the questions: What are we going to do? And, more importantly, how are we going to get there? In order to be a successful nonprofit, you have to create a plan, and also implement it.

Easier said than done.

If done correctly, strategic planning can create a positive impact on any nonprofit agency. Strategic planning helps nonprofits uncover new possibilities, creates a space that fosters innovation, and aids organizations anticipate challenges so that they can address them in a proactive manner. It almost sounds too good to be true, but the framework described below can provide you with an indispensable tool to tackle to the toughest, most complex issues that your nonprofits are facing (Herman, 2010).

1) Who’s Who: You first have to figure out whom you want to include in the strategic planning process. Creating a space at the table for all relevant stakeholders is key for your ability to truly understand all perspectives and potential problems. It also creates buy in and distributes power as it gives every stakeholder a voice in the process (Herman, 2010). 

2) Create an exciting vision for your organization: This is your chance to reevaluate your mission and the values of your organization.  Reorienting stakeholders to the purpose and passion behind an agency can create fresh energy and revitalize an organization. The vision you create will guide the rest of the strategic plan (Cameron, 1991).

3) Complete an environmental scan: Make sure you consider a problem from all angles. This includes assessing the external opportunities and threats such as the social, economic, and political environment of your organization’s community. A complete scan also includes evaluating the internal strengths and weaknesses of your agency. Understanding how staff, funding, structure, and information positively or negatively impact your agency is essential. (United Way).

4) Prioritize strategic issues: At this point you will have created a lengthy list of challenges affecting your agency’s mission, values, service delivery, clients, or funding. You are now tasked with prioritizing the probability and impact of each issue so that you can narrow the scope of the strategic plan. It is important to write these issues down so that everyone is on the same page and is speaking a common language (L. Howard, personal communication, 02/03/15).

5) Create a strategic plan to address major issues: It’s time to get creative. Create plans, understand barriers, and figure out how to overcome identified barriers. Make the process manageable by breaking the plan up into short-term and long-term goals (Herman, 2010).

6) Choose the winning plan: Vote all inferior plans off of the island! Choose the best plan to address identified issues and create measurable and attainable objectives. Start small by creating action steps, eventually form a timeline, and then figure out what resources will be required to implement your plan (Herman, 2010). In this way, everyone will know when a step in the plan is achieved. Being able to visualize these efforts can empower employees because they will be able to see that progress is being made.

7) Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate: Be open to CHANGE. Social environments change quickly so you will need to be fluid and adapt your strategic plan accordingly. If a program is not working, this is your chance to make it more effective (Herman, 2010).

It is my hope that these 7 manageable steps will encourage managers to use strategic planning as a catalyst for solving complex and challenging issues.


Cameron, K. (1991). Developing Management Skills. Harper-Collins: New York, Chpt 10.
Herman, R. (2010).  The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management (3rd ed).  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
United Way of Dane County. Strategic Planning Process.