How to Approach Strategic Planning like a Nonprofit Consultant




To be effective, every nonprofit ought to have a clear strategic direction. It’s important to define what your organization intends to accomplish and how to achieve those goals. However, as the pace of change quickens and the nonprofit sector continues to evolve, what it means to engage in strategic thinking and goal-setting must evolve too.

In our 14 years of helping nonprofits conduct strategic planning, we’ve observed that “strategic planning” can mean anything from a one-day board brainstorming retreat to a full year intensive planning process. We’ve also learned what makes for a good planning process and gives you a useful planning tool as the final product. When we work with nonprofits on their strategic plans, we customize our approach to meet their needs. But there are a few lessons to be learned from how we approach nonprofit strategic planning.

Strategic Planning = Business Planning

First, any strategic planning process worth its salt must rigorously test and confirm your organizational business model. If you want to sustain your organization over time, you need to think about financial viability and mission impact, and the relationship between the two. A great book on this topic is Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability by Jan Masaoka, Steve Zimmerman, and Jeanne Bell.

Strategic planning must include traditional business planning elements like developing a Pro-Forma budget to spell out the revenue and expense assumptions that accompany the strategies, and a competitive landscape analysis to validate assumptions about the nonprofit’s current – and future – position in the market.

Start with the Questions

Good planning starts by asking the right questions you’ll want to resolve during the process. These can be questions tied to mission impact, the business model, or likely a combination of the two. Take the time to figure out exactly what you want to learn or hypothesis you want to test via the process before you even get started. This will make it easier to chart a course for where you want your organization to go, then developing the sustainable, actionable plan to get you there.

A Phased Approach

All strategic business planning processes – no matter how short – will likely need to take an organization through phases of work, from the big thinking and reality testing of initial phases to a crystal clear implementation plan. Here is an overview of the planning phases that guide our work:

(1) Taking Stock

  • How should your strategic business plan take into account your current reality? Make sure you’re doing intentional data collection from key internal and external stakeholders.

(2) Mission and Vision Alignment

  • Should mission and vision change to reflect new reality, current stage of development? Review your mission and vision, and determine if these pivotal statements are in need of an update.

(3) Setting Goals

  • Set high-level goals (consider using the common SMART criteria) and achieve consensus on these goals from your full board of directors to the plan direction.

(4) Strategies and Tactics

  • Gather the staff input needed to achieve the goals you’ve outlined. Write the plan itself, considering the audiences you’ll want to see the final product as you write to determine length and level of detail needed.

(5) Plan implementation

  • How you will achieve the goals you’ve set in your strategic business plan and make sure it is a living document? Consider how this plan will be communicated to staff, board and key external stakeholders. Develop staff work plans and create a clear approach for monitoring your plan’s progress.

Done right, strategic business planning is a chance to reflect on impact, outcomes, business model, and long-term sustainability. It should also build the will of key actors to implement the plan together.

Ready to dive in to your own process? Join us on for the upcoming Strategic Business Planning Intensive designed to help staff and board leadership teams identify key questions and map the strategic planning process that best meets their unique organizational needs.

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