Nonprofits are the purview of dreamers. They attract people with goals of, if not changing the world, at least working to change a part of a problem that others might see as intractable or impossible. Therefore, nonprofits frequently have lofty (and vague) missions such as “[uniting and focusing] the community to create measurable results in changing people’s lives and strengthening our community.”
Which is something that anyone can get on board with. What is less clear is how that is actually attained. Enter: strategic planning. Without strategic planning the above mission is a set of nice words that form a sentence. With strategic planning it is a raison d’etre for that particular, chosen completely at random, organization.
Above is a basic model of strategic planning. As the reader reads the process from left to right the first benefit of strategic planning should appear: Lofty goals can be translated into concrete actions. By turning a vision into a strategy into a set of concrete plans the work of the nonprofit can be less a stab in the dark in the general direction of a problem but rather tied to the underlying motivations of the organization into a work process that can produce the measurable results that our example mission statement holds in so much regard.
Of course, this doesn’t happen because I made a fancy diagram in MS Publisher that says so. It happens because within that diagram are implicit actions that are taken during the strategic planning process. These actions bring resources to the table that could potentially go underutilized. This brings us to the second benefit of strategic planning: Stakeholder engagement.
In order to collect the inputs needed for the strategic planning process (listed on the far left) nonprofit leaders will need to engage not just their own staff but everyone that touches the organization. This can potentially lead the organization to tap previously unacknowledged potential within the stakeholder crowd who have been underutilized up to this point. Stakeholder engagement also doesn’t end at the input collection stage. Instead, to the extent possible stakeholders ought to be integrated into the entire planning process. Ongoing stakeholder engagement not only provides planners with an ongoing stream of needed information but also ensures that information is diffused regularly straight back to stakeholders. Finally, if stakeholders are involved in planning for the future it is more likely that they will buy-in to the plan during implementation making the overarching changes possible.
The next benefit is that strategic planning allows a nonprofit to understand its role in a broader dynamic environment. The second bubble – SWOTS – refers to ‘strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.” The last two are environmental concerns and a byproduct of knowing them will permit a nonprofit to also know who they are themselves. For example, a nonprofit that works in affordable housing exists in a complicated, detail orientated environment full of clients with a myriad of needs and a complex policy structure. Strategic planning will allow this nonprofit to take a step back and see the broader picture. In the process they can anticipate threats as well as locate new opportunities that be unnoticed in the day to day operations.
The final benefit is that evaluation is embedded throughout. The process hinges on integrating evaluation throughout the organization and the planning process. This reduces the possibility of mission creep and ensures that the focus that strategic planning can force a nonprofit and its stakeholders to gain will continue into the future.
A Word on Sources:
I have condensed the ideas of a number of authors for this blogpost. Because of the nature of the format I found it difficult to do direct citations. However, I would strongly suggest that interested readers move onto these sources to learn more:
Renz, David O, ed. 2010. The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Ch. 8 & 9 Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA.
United Way of Dane County. Strategic Planning Process