strategy & planning

By: Jessica Wassenaar

All too often, strategic planning is a drain on an organization’s resources that results in a document that is only referred to when someone outside the organization asks about it, or as a reference document the next time someone suggests doing a strategic plan. I’d venture to say that a lot of people are doing strategic planning wrong. Here are some common misconceptions that need to be shattered.

Myth: Every nonprofit should do a strategic plan.

Not every nonprofit is always ready for the strategic planning process. There might be operational constraints such as senior staff turnover, pressing funding shortfalls, or board members who can’t take on more work, among other limiting factors.

How do you know if and when you should tackle strategic planning?

  • Is your organization ready to truly question the way it currently operates and deal with the ambiguity that strategic planning requires? Ambiguity and disruption are bound to happen during strategic planning. That’s part of the reason why a fully board-led process can lead you to dark places. No matter how talented your board members are, external and objective counsel is key to pushing the organization to ask the right questions.
  • Do you have enough bandwidth to work on strategic planning from a board and staff perspective? Creating a functional strategic plan takes time. The typical strategic planning process will require approximately 40 to 60 hours of your senior staff’s time and 20 hours of the strategic planning committee’s time over a 4-6 month period. That’s on top of resources provided by an outside consultant or facilitator.
  • Do you know why you are engaging in the process? We recommend you ask “why are we doing this?” before embarking on any project or initiative. In strategic planning its especially important to understand the goals of the process before you begin. Do you need a shift in strategy? Or are you looking for operational efficiencies that come from business planning?

If you answered yes and understand the intended goals and desired outcomes for the process, then you are ready for strategic planning. Otherwise you should consider waiting, or perhaps a scope-limited project as your next step.

Myth: The strategic plan should provide detailed financial targets.

This is tricky because a strategic plan certainly can include detailed financial targets. But the fallacy here is suggesting every strategic plan should look the same way.

There are some fundamental elements that are critical to developing a viable strategic plan. However, some organizations’ management and culture respond best to a high-level document, whereas others need to dig into the details of operations and financials. However you achieve it, it is critical that the final plan have measures set in place to determine if the strategy is successful. For some organizations this may mean specific financial targets, but for other organizations this might be program growth, staff development, or even the implementation of new service.

Myth: Strategic planning is a drain on resources.

I just told you that strategic planning takes a lot of time. And it’s true that the process requires a financial and time investment by staff and board members. However, it doesn’t have to drain your resources. Here are some tips for cutting down on the toll that strategic planning can take on an organization:

  • Place strategic planning on the staff and board’s calendars just as you would any program or service. In fact, if you know that certain tasks are on the horizon, go ahead and put it on their radar far in advance. This way everyone can plan for required meetings, understand their anticipated time commitments, and ask questions in advance. You can always change specific meeting dates or adapt the process, but having a starting point is a great way to level-set.
  • Include strategic planning in your budget, including preparing for extra capacity. Make sure expectations are clear with your board and that funds have been appropriately allocated. The financial investment of strategic planning can range greatly depending on the scope, size, and support needed for the project. Which leads me to my next point….
  • Be creative about how you do strategic planning. There are a variety of ways to reduce the expense of a strategic plan, such as having staff write the plan with direction from an outside facilitator or phasing strategic planning across fiscal years to use resources from two years’ budgets. A knowledgeable consultant can identify areas of the process that are non-negotiable to deliver a quality product, and where you can adapt to fit the needs (and budget) of the organization.

With a greater understanding of the strategic planning process and by debunking these myths, you can create a plan that provides value for your organization while being mindful of your needs and resources. If you think you may be ready to embark on the strategic planning journey (or you’re actually not sure!), give us a call and we can help you figure out the right next steps for your organization.

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