In the Bridgespan Group’s work developing strategic plans with clients, we’ve often heard a collective sigh of relief when the planning process is over. It’s understandable. Strategic planning is hard work (see "Zeroing In On Impact"). It involves articulating the results for which the organization will hold itself accountable and the actions it will take to get there. Because it is hard work, it’s tempting to think that finishing the written plan is equivalent to crossing the finish line.
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But, of course, it isn’t. Writing a strategic plan is only the first step towards achieving impact year after year. The next step is implementation, and often, that is where organizations stumble. In fact, when responding to the Bridgespan Group’s most recent organizational diagnostic survey, staff members at more than 120 nonprofits rated their employers’ capacity to implement their strategies 10 percent below their average rating for all other organizational capability areas. Respondents gave their organizations especially low marks on their abilities to break down their strategies into manageable pieces, communicate their visions and the change required to achieve them, allocate the staff and resources needed to achieve plan goals, and monitor progress and adjust course when change is needed. Those weaknesses can result in a lack of awareness of an organization’s strategic priorities, and disengagement between what staff members do on a daily basis and progress on those priorities. They can also result in under-resourced priorities that are important in name only, and ultimately, disappointingly slow progress toward achieving the organization’s goals.
When Is It Time to Update Your Strategic Plan?
This guide focuses on implementing strategy. But before taking action, it’s important to be confident that your strategy is as strong as it can be. In Bridgespan’s experience, changes in any of the following can signal that it is time for an organization to develop a new plan:
Funding environment: Are you seeing major shifts in the type and level of support your traditional funders are offering? Do you have a new funder who is concerned about the viability of your organization?
Policy environment: Have new policies created opportunities or challenges that will dramatically affect what you can achieve as an organization?
Competitive environment: Are new program models emerging that create opportunities for you to serve your beneficiaries more effectively and efficiently? Have new competitors or potential collaborators entered the space in which you’ve been operating?
Organizational leadership: Do you have a new executive director or new board leadership at your helm?
Alternatively, it may simply be time to revisit your strategy if your current plan is expiring (i.e., if you are in the third year of a three-year plan). If any of these circumstances pertain to your organization, it may be useful to review Bridgespan’s article “Business Planning for Nonprofits: What it is and Why it Matters.”
If any of those symptoms sound familiar, this guide is designed for you. Its contents share Bridgespan clients’ experiences as well as insights from other nonprofits that have excelled at building momentum as they moved from planning to implementation. To create the guide, we conducted in-depth interviews with selected leaders of these organizations and solicited input from members of Bridgespan's LinkedIn peer networking groups for chief executive, operating, and financial officers. Our goal was to better understand how they’ve successfully lived into their strategic plans and distill lessons from organizations that have moved from setting strategy to achieving impact. (A complete list of the nonprofit leaders we interviewed is included in the Acknowledgements section at the end of the guide.)
The organizations we interviewed share an orientation towards change. They’ve used practical approaches to convert their visions into tangible actions, and they’ve been diligent about monitoring progress and correcting course when circumstances change. It’s this combination of mindset and implementation management that gets results. This guide presents their methods for implementation in six steps. Within each step, you also will find templates at the end of this guide that illustrate the types of tools these nonprofit leaders used to lead implementation within their organizations.