“We have too much time and too much money!” Said no nonprofit leader, ever.
As a nonprofit leader, you’re probably more limited by your resources and time than your opportunities to create impact. That means that learning how to consistently and thoughtfully say “no” to things is almost as important as how and when to say “yes.” This is when strategic planning can be particularly useful.
But what do we mean when we say “strategic planning”? Strategic planning is the process of making decisions about which approaches you’ll pursue, and to what end, given a limited set of resources. This process is paramount to any organization’s ability to increasingly deliver impact in a way that feels sustainable.
What is strategic planning?
Ok, but be more specific, what EXACTLY is strategic planning?
A few years back, a “strategic plan” meant a 50-page document outlining what should be done over the next five years. We got over that once we realized that said document often ended up on a shelf somewhere and rarely, if ever, saw daylight.
Today, our thinking has evolved. We envision strategic planning as a highly collaborative process to create a tool that helps you focus on key priorities and enables you to make decisions over the next few (1-3) years, while also adapting to new conditions and opportunities as they arise.
Ideally the strategic planning process should answer five questions:
- For what impact, and for whom, do we want to hold ourselves accountable? Are there specific populations on which we want to focus, or disparities that we want to address?
- How will we achieve that impact, based on what we as an organization are best positioned to do?
- What specific priorities and work will we focus on?
- What resources – financial, human, and organizational – will we need to pursue this work?
- How will we know we are making progress?
Use this checklist to have a conversation with your team about the strategic planning process. [PDF]
While resource allocation is an evergreen challenge, there are certain moments for nonprofits when strategic planning might be particularly helpful.
When is the right time?
In our work with clients on strategic planning over the last 18 years, we’ve seen strategic planning being particularly powerful when:
- Your last strategic plan is ending –if you find yourself near the end of what you previously set out to do, it pays to be proactive and start thinking ahead so you won’t get caught on your heels
- There is a change in the environment–if big things are happening in the world around you (e.g., regulatory environment, community where you work, funding landscape), it usually pays to take a step back, and reassess priorities and plan of attack given the new world order
- There is a change in your organization– new leadership, team, highly accelerated growth are all indicators that you might want to get clear on and aligned around those things on which your organization should focus
- There isn’t a strong sense of direction–if you feel that the organization has taken on too much over the years and you can’t see the forest for the trees, it might be time to go back to the drawing board
- You feel like full potential is not being achieved – if you think more can be done and better impact achieved with the resources available, it might make sense to sit down and discuss what needs to change
For Beth Chandler's team, several of these situations had arisen. Their CEO had just departed, and they realized that there wasn't a strong sense of direction due to an inflated program portfolio.
We invite you all to take a step back and consider the situations above: is your organization experiencing any of these situations? If so, do you and your team have a clear and unified approach on what to do? If not, you may want to consider further exploring the idea of embarking on a strategic plan.
Without a clear strategy, your organization can’t have the impact it seeks in the world. Get your whole executive team involved with kickstarting your strategic planning process. Learn about Bridgespan’s Achieving Strategic Clarity program, which combines online lessons and team meetings with Bridgespan coaching support, on a flexible schedule that meets you where you are. We have sessions starting in September 2019 and January 2020 – learn more here.
Download the New Strategy Checklist