Strategic planning is especially important in the nonprofit world. These organizations have similar risks and opportunities as commercial businesses, but they often don’t have the competitive market to keep them “honest”. Or, put a little better, by the time they realize they are in trouble, it is often too late. A few years ago, we worked with a nonprofit that was experiencing a severe decline in its financial base. Substantial erosion had already taken place by the time the severity of the situation was recognized by the organization’s leadership.
The way to prevent this is to have a clear strategic plan coupled with an implementation playbook that is refreshed every five years. It’s equally important to develop the plan in an inclusive manner that engages the Board, leadership, and employees. When we assist in these projects, we follow several basic principles that lead to commitments that both make sense and can be embraced by the broader organization, including volunteers, donors and beneficiaries. To use a metaphor: Not only must the plan “sing” but it must also “sail.”
Here’s our approach:
1. Begin at the top, getting the views of senior executives and Board members. We do this with individual interviews using a well-established interview guide. We gain a deep understanding of the organization’s beneficiaries and what they want. We need to understand what important things have changed since the last plan. You’d be surprised how things like technology, generational shifts and culture changes can affect both who’s in the beneficiary base and what its needs are.
2. Look at all available, relevant data. Including hard data such as financial information, and beneficiary demographics and characteristics. It also includes softer data such as beneficiary satisfaction, donor and volunteer demographics, inquiry volumes, employee engagement and brand recognition.
3. Hold employee focus groups to get broad input on the strategic issues. These should be two to four-hour discussions that capture what your people think works well and what should change. Also, selectively interview beneficiaries, donors and volunteers to get their respective perspectives and manage them as key stakeholders. Getting their perspective can be tricky to get right without stimulating opposition to change, and we accordingly devote careful attention to carefully managing this part of the process.
4. Appoint and empower a strategy task force to own the development of the strategy. Consultants can help with the heavy lifting — facilitating, note taking and scheduling. However, the task force makes the actual strategic decisions.
5. Have the Task Force start by looking at the organization’s mission. Why are we here? Who cares? What would make them care more? What differentiates us? What do our beneficiaries truly want? These are not small questions. For a nonprofit to be successful, all constituencies need to be passionate about the mission.
6. Next, focus on the vision: what you want to look like after you execute the strategic plan. This future state creation needs to be complete and specific. No fluff.
7. Then, create the steps and the timing that will govern the plan’s implementation. Be clear about who owns each piece of the plan and what resources will be needed. Don’t just do new things. Also, consider what needs to be stopped. If this category isn’t significant, you can be sure your work is incomplete, and the organization will not have the bandwidth to implement the plan.
8. Then, bring the Board and leadership team together to consider the plan in detail and adopt it with any needed changes. Make sure the playbook includes well-formulated stakeholder management activities as well as a focus on governance and program management. Don’t conclude the meeting without a clear launch plan.
9. Finally, mobilize and get started, making sure there is a well-defined kick-off event and that the implementation begins with a high level of visibility and energy. Track progress frequently and publicize progress visibly to the broader community.