Building a Sound Non-Profit Requires a Sound Strategy!

Strategic planning has long been used as a tool to transform and revitalize organizations whether they are a for -profit or non-profit. However, there have been some mis-conceptions or perceptions around strategic planning, its purpose, and value and what it takes to build a plan that fosters the ability to succeed.

Indeed, a strategic planning process can prove to be pointless and frustrating and the product is of little value when care is not taken to set clear, realistic goals, define explicit action steps, and elicit the views of major stakeholder groups.

Few tools, however, are better suited to help address the many challenges brought about by a constant changing environment. A successful strategic planning process examines and makes informed projections about environmental realities to help an organization anticipate and respond to changeStrategy 3 by clarifying its mission/purpose and goals; targeting spending; and reshaping its programs, fundraising and other aspects of operations.  However, many organizations confuse strategic planning with other types of planning.

The Difference between Strategic Planning and Other types of Planning?

Most organization’s strategic planning efforts go awry because they are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what a strategic plan is. Sometimes strategic planning is confused with other planning modalities, each valid in its own right but geared toward a different end-result. To put it simply, not every plan is a strategic plan. A strategic plan is a tool that provides guidance in fulfilling a mission with maximum efficiency and impact. If it is to be effective and useful, it should articulate specific goals and describe the action steps and resources needed to accomplish them. As a rule, most strategic plans should be reviewed and revised every three to five years.  So what plans are often confused with a strategic plan?

An operating plan is one that is a coordinated set of tasks for carrying out the goals delineated in a strategic plan. This plan goes into greater detail than the strategic plan from which it is derived, spelling out time frames and the roles of individual staff and board members, for example. It also has a shorter horizon than a strategic plan — usually one fiscal year.

A business plan on the other-hand is typically focused on the actions and investment necessary to generate income from a specific program or service. A business plan includes information about an organization’s services, products, competitive environment and revenue assumptions (grants, donations sponsors, etc.). This plan is often confused with a strategic plan because it rarely focuses on strategy and timeframes.

A case statement is geared toward marketing and fundraising rather than planning. It describes the organization’s goals, capabilities and strengths and the benefits it provides. Its purpose is to secure contributions and grants from individuals, foundations, corporate giving programs and other philanthropic entities. Your strategic plan would include a case statement for this purpose.

Successful strategic plans by definition are usable – meaning that they inform of the non-profit organization’s activities as well as its long and short-term view, and one that yields meaningful improvements in effectiveness, capacity and relevance.  When developing a strategic plan an organization would consider:

─          Making sure that the plan is clear and comprehensive and identifies both external and internal opportunities and challenges.

─          Ensuring that it gives a fair assessment  of the organization and is comprehensive in identifying an organization’s internal strengths and limitations

─          That the plan is all inclusive  – meaning all stakeholder groups have a say in the planning

─          Empowering the Planning Committee – As a matter of practical necessity, this core group will generally be entrusted to a small planning committee with sufficient decision-making authority to keep the project moving forward.

─          Involvement of  Organizational Senior Leadership

─          Sharing of Responsibility by board and staff members

─          Learning from Best Practices

─          Clear Priorities and an Implementation plan

─          Commitment to change and encourage patience at every level

Where to Concentrate Your Efforts in the Strategic Plan

Ideally, a non-profit should work with a reputable consulting firm to help them to develop their strategic plan and work with the consulting form to review the plan every three to five years to ensure that the organization is on target to achieving its goals. You will know that you have a reputable consulting firm when they touch on and build your organization’s strategic plan around the following:

  • Basic Foundation  – organization philosophy, core values and principles
  • Vision – what your organization will dare to achieve in the time frame designated. A strategic plan cannot succeed unless it is derived from a clear vision of what the organization will look like at a specific point in the future. This vision is encapsulated in a written description of the organization’s desired future state in terms of budget size, client base, staffing levels and program areas and other parameters.
  • Mission – what your organization will achieve within the year to drive the vision.
  • Development of Critical Goal Categories – these are the areas that enable an organization to meet its vision and mission
  • Goals – these are the items that will drive the organization towards its mission
  • Action Steps – Define the actions that must be accomplished in order to meet the organizational goals.
  • Market Plan – this should include the non-profit service offering, segment strategy, market communication and support strategy.
  • Budgeting – expenses, grant requirements, financial statements, cash flow/ Funding Forecast. Know what you have, what sources the funding is coming from(grants, donations, fundraising, sponsors, endowments, etc.) operating costs, program costs, staff development, etc. should all be considered in the budget and how the funds received or anticipated to be received will be allocated accordingly.
  • Staff Development – needed to carry out the mission and vision of your organization – this is a short-term and long-term necessity for continuous growth of your non-profit or business.

How a Consultant can help

Many non-profits organizations large and small have Board and staff members with strategic planning expertise. However, what they often lack are objectivity, discipline and time. A consultant can provide invaluable assistance in designing a strategic planning process that involves all key stakeholder groups in a cost-effective way. Consultants can also obtain sensitive information confidentially and share it in a useful fashion.

Other productive roles for consultants include providing “expert advice” based on their work with other organizations; facilitating consensus among stakeholders with differing points of view; keeping planning committees on track and on schedule; and helping to organize seemingly diffuse or contradictory thoughts and approaches into a sound strategic plan document.

What outside consultants cannot do is take full responsibility for developing your strategic plan, or determine your organization’s mission, vision, goals or implementation activities. Rather, the role of the consultant is to facilitate a process whereby the organization’s leadership makes those decisions. Nor should consultants be expected to communicate to an organization’s constituents about the value of a planning process or generate enthusiasm for new directions. It is the consultant’s job to furnish background information when needed and to focus on taking the organization through the strategic planning process. This ensures that the plan reflects the interests of individuals who will be instrumental in helping the organization thrive in the future.

A Final Word

It is important to understand the limitations as well as the possibilities of a strategic plan. A strategic plan is not a wish list, a report card or a marketing tool and it is certainly not a magic trick or a quick remedy  for everything that ails an organization – especially if it winds up on the shelf.

What a strategic plan can do is highlight an organization’s unique strengths and relevant limitations, enabling it to uncover new opportunities or the causes of current or future problems.  If the board and staff are committed to its implementation, a strategic plan can provide an invaluable blueprint for growth and revitalization, that enables and organization to consider where it is, determine where it wants to go and chart the course to get there!


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