In my experience at various nonprofits, strategic planning has been an elusive concept, a “buzz word” organizations threw around without much action. Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in the strategic planning process at Madison Nonprofit*. Madison Nonprofit’s approach to strategic planning included many of the crucial elements, but they have work to do in executing the full cycle of strategic planning.
1. Review Mission
The 9-month strategic planning process at Madison Nonprofit began with a review of the organization’s mission, a crucial first step (Brown). The mission is an organization’s reason for existence and serves as a constant reference point throughout every stage of strategic planning and all subsequent decision making (United Way; Brown). Though Madison Nonprofit opted not to alter its existing mission, the mission did continue to serve as a cornerstone to each additional step in the process.
2. Situational Assessment
Additionally, Madison Nonprofit began its strategic planning with several approaches to assess the organizational, or internal, environment, as well as the external environment. For instance, Madison Nonprofit included staff of all levels and stakeholders, engaging them in an organizational retreat, interviews and focus groups, and program mapping activities to identify organizational strengths and weaknesses, as well as community needs and external trends.
Considering both the external and internal environment is a crucial step in strategic planning (Brown). Often, organizations jump to considering the external environment without considering the internal state of the organization. However, internal human, financial, technological, and structural capacity are key components to organization effectiveness and impact (United Way). These internal conditions should be assessed in addition to the external environment’s social, economic, and political states or trends (United Way). In engaging external and internal stakeholders, Madison Nonprofit set itself up well to analyze internally and externally. Additionally, it maintained a balanced view and approached identifying any organizational weaknesses or external threats as an opportunity to explore how to build strengths and improve performance (Bryson).
3. Identify Strategic Issues & 4. Formulate Strategies
Using information garnered from the situational assessments, Madison Nonprofit identified critical questions and challenges affecting the organization’s mission, service and stakeholders; these are defined as strategic issues (Bryson). Identifying strategic issues helps encourage an organization to think differently “so that knowledge exploration, development, and learning might occur” (Bryson, 252). Madison Nonprofit identified four strategic issues -- family and community engagement, building a sustainable business model, equity and inclusion, staff development and retention – and then created sub-committees to learn more and identify strategic issues within each area. To address strategic issues, each sub-committee created strategies and tasks to address each strategic issue. These were compiled into a “Strategic Plan” which was approved and adopted by the Board.
5. Create Implementation Plan & 6. Evaluation
Madison Nonprofit effectively performed each of the above steps, but then mistakenly viewed the strategic process as complete. Each key strategic issue had several sub-goals, and many sub-tasks for each goal. Yet, Madison Nonprofit did not prioritize the many tasks (such as by assessing an issue’s probability and impact), create a plan for implementation, nor include a plan to evaluate, crucial steps to strategic planning (United Way; Bryson). Evaluation is critical and informs each step of the strategic planning process, from helping the organization identify strengths and weaknesses to monitoring progress, outputs, and outcomes (Bryson).
Benefits of Strategic Planning
By engaging in strategic planning, Madison Nonprofit gained some benefits of strategic planning including integrating perspectives from multiple stakeholders and creating goals to help the organization move forward (Brown). Additionally, strategic planning helped align the organization, providing an opportunity to discuss its purpose and helping to set its future course (Bryson). Overall, strategic planning helps an organization be more proactive and forward-thinking. To fully realize these benefits, Madison Nonprofit must keep strategic thinking on the forefront of its mind and continue to review and re-evaluate the three-year plan it created. Creating more clear plans for implementation and evaluation will complete the work they have done so far and foster strategic planning’s ability to “make hope reasonable” (Bryson).
*name has been changed to preserve the anonymity of the organization
Brown, William M. The Jossey-Bass handbook of nonprofit leadership and management. Ch 8: Strategic Management. John Wiley & Sons, 2016.
Bryson, John. The Jossey-Bass handbook of nonprofit leadership and management. Ch 9: Strategic Planning and the Strategy Change Cycle. John Wiley & Sons, 2016.
United Way of Dane County. Strategic Planning Process.