“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless; but that planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

As a consultant to nonprofits, I often hear board members complain, “The staff don’t have a vision or target! They’re lost in the weeds of immediate problems and not thinking about the big picture.”

A leadership coach once said to me, “Don’t be so busy doing the work OF the business that you fail to work ON the business.” This, of course, is sage advice and strategic planning is a smart time to work on the mission of your nonprofit and best designed as a recurring process versus a reaction to a lack of strategic focus.  

For many nonprofits, strategy surfaces as a need every 2 or 3 years. When the time rolls around, they hire someone like me to facilitate an in-depth planning process that provides a new set of goals designed to drive their mission forward. And then the plan gets put on a shelf. Rarely does the strategic planning process reshape or integrate into weekly operational rhythms.

This is not how it should work. The world moves too fast for strategy to be an occasional discussion. Strategic planning needs to be a streamlined, proactive, and regular process that enables nonprofits to focus their efforts, adapt to change, and clarify direction. 

As you think about the planning process in your nonprofit, these five tips can help keep strategy at the heart of your mission. 

#1 – Prioritize Process – The process of strategic planning is as important as the resulting plans. 

  • Use a neutral facilitator so that your leaders can participate in the process and not have to lead the process.
    • When internal leaders have to facilitate the strategic planning process, it compromises the outcome by removing a key leader from the table and can also create the perception of biases based on the leader facilitating. 
  • The process should not be cumbersome or take multiple days.
    • There are rapid and agile processes that expedite strategic planning while maintaining effectiveness, helping your nonprofit learn to be responsive in today’s rapidly changing world. 
  • Allow tension and unresolved questions to exist.
    • Make room for healthy debate and process, but resist the temptation to chase solutions since that’s what you’re building a plan to do.

#2 – Build the Right Team – Having a cross-section of leaders in strategic planning is vital to success. 

  • Nonprofits have multiple layers of leadership.
    • Building a team that includes members of each layer can provide increased perspective, shared awareness, and lead to moments of collective breakthrough.
  • Be thoughtful and intentional about diversity in your planning team.
    •  Homogeneous teams can result in homogeneous, one-dimensional plans. 
  • Self-awareness and emotional intelligence are critical attributes so that teams can navigate conflict and difficult conversations without undermining trust.

#3 – Begin with Perspective – Before planning tomorrow, it’s important to see clearly where you are today. 

  • Whether through pre-work or the first few exercises of your planning process, facilitate questions that provide a robust qualitative and quantitative assessment of today.
    • Share real data and numbers. 
    • Consider using a survey to assess broader opinion. 
  • Don’t just do a SWOT analysis.
    • There are multiple tools available like “Sailboat” and “Four Helpful Lists”… another reason to use a trained facilitator with a large quiver of strategic process tools. 

#4 – Form Follows Function – When organizational systems and structures stay stuck in old paradigms, they quickly become barriers to progress.

  • Today’s quickly changing world requires systems that can adapt more frequently than ever before.
    • Strategic planning provides the perfect opportunity to analyze and streamline existing processes to eliminate redundancies and inefficiencies. 
  • Organizational structure is one of the primary drivers of healthy organizational culture.
    • Determine if changes to reporting lines, departments, and roles are necessary for improved collaboration, communication, and/or decision-making. 

#5 – Assign Accountability – When everyone is accountable, no one is accountable.

  • After a decade of helping nonprofits build strategic plans, I’ve seen that those with clear tactical action steps and assigned accountability are twice as likely to be successfully implemented.
    • Strategic objectives (e.g. goal, initiative, WIN, etc.) need time-bound action plans with defined roles and responsibilities. 
  • Resist the temptation to make groups or teams accountable for action steps.
    • When a single person is the owner/driver of a specific action step, accountability and follow-through are more likely to be achieved. 

A proactive process of strategic planning is crucial for setting clear direction, aligning stakeholders, optimizing resources, and adapting to change.

In another time nonprofits might have been able to wait two or three years for updated strategic plans. But today, the strategic process we rely on must be refreshed and updated regularly… or our plans will fail to navigate the complexities of our fast-moving world.