The nonprofit leaders we interviewed were candid about how they moved their organizations from having a plan on paper to living into their strategy. Below we synthesize key insights and learnings from their implementation experiences.
Use your strategy as a tool to guide decision making
It is easy to get distracted by the day-to-day challenges of running a nonprofit, and also by new problems and opportunities that may arise unexpectedly. But it’s important not to let dust settle on your strategic plan. Once you’ve gone through the hard work of creating it, it’s important to use it as a guide for evaluating opportunities to pursue and how to respond to setbacks. Your strategy will help you stay on track toward your goals only if you refer to it often and continually remind your staff and board of what you are trying to achieve, why, and how you will do so. As one CEO put it, “Having a strategic plan…is what enables you to stay the course, even in times of change.”
Stay flexible in your approach
The best strategic plans provide strong direction and accountability but do not act as straightjackets. The world in which nonprofits operate is not as clean or neat as the paper on which strategic plans are written. Effective implementation means finding a balance between maintaining a consistent strategic focus and adapting to changing circumstances. Leaders with whom we spoke talked about strategic execution as an iterative process: In order to achieve their organization’s intended impact, they needed to be willing to adjust their course. Many organizations experienced unanticipated events that influenced their ability to advance their strategies, such as a major funder shifting its focus or significant changes in government policy. Rather than abandoning their strategies, they changed their tactics, keeping their strategic goals in focus but adapting the specific actions that they were taking based on what they had learned and what the new circumstances required. Ultimately, they mapped out new routes to their destinations.
Maintain constant communication
Successful execution of your strategy requires that all of your stakeholders be acutely aware of your priorities and direction. Many, if not most, strategic plans are formulated between executive teams and boards; too often, the organization’s leaders delay or neglect the crucial act of communicating the new or revised organizational vision to staff members. If your organization doesn’t understand the strategy and hasn’t internalized the need for change, you will lack the buy-in needed to successfully execute the plan. It’s important to provide a consistent, clear, and positive message about why the new strategy is the best course of action, and to encourage staff to own its implementation. It’s also important to repeat that message
. Your communications should cover what will be different about the organization, why this change is critical to achieve the impact you seek, and how your staff can play an important role. (More tips on communicating throughout implementation are included in the Communications Plan Template in the PDF version of this guide.)
Empower change champions
Some functions will be affected by the implementation process more than others, and staff in these areas may exhibit signs of “change shock,” needing time and encouragement to get on board. To address this challenge, look for opportunities to empower “change champions” who can speak to their colleagues’ fears and provide compelling messages about why change is necessary. In addition, encourage staff ownership of implementation by enabling them to provide input on changes that will directly affect their individual roles.
Phase in implementation with a designated champion
While some organizations struggle to get started on implementation, others try to take on too much change at once. This can backfire, particularly if your strategy calls for major shifts in the work that your staff and organization are doing. While it may be tempting to launch new efforts, hire staff, and redesign internal functions all in the first quarter of implementation, doing too much at the outset can risk under-resourcing priorities, burning out your staff, and accomplishing less than if you sequenced the work over time. Consider how you can ramp up implementation, and first tackle changes that your organization is most ready and eager to face. Doing so will enable you to make demonstrable progress immediately, while you build a platform for longer-term changes.
In addition, it is important to have one person responsible for driving the change process forward. For some organizations, this means redefining a senior staff role to direct implementation. Others have a more junior staff member serve as a “traffic cop” to ensure implementation progressed efficiently. In the organizations we studied, the person in charge of implementation was identified early (during the strategic planning process), and they reported directly to the head of the organization, signaling that implementation was of the highest priority. While it may not be possible or necessary for your organization to dedicate a full-time staff member to manage implementation, it is critical to have someone take responsibility for coordinating efforts and maintaining momentum. It also is essential for your organization’s leadership to champion implementation as passionately as they did strategy formulation.