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August 30, 2012
Tips for Painless Strategic Planning


“Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.” William Jennings Bryan

Success is a team effort. Whether an organization succeeds or fails at achieving it’s annual goals or it’s mission, is not just the responsibility of the CEO. In fact, within nonprofit organizations the BOD holds the primary responsibility for actively planning for the future and achieving mission fulfillment.

Strategic planning is essential in regards to actively planning for the future. This process is so important for an organization that the non-existence or poor set up of a strategic plan can have detrimental results to the organization. The strategic planning process ultimately helps the BOD develop a plan that guides the actions and impacts the success of the entire organization.

Unfortunately the idea of strategic planning can seem tedious and daunting for many board members. Strategic planning does not have to take an unreasonable amount of time. Sitting in long, boring meetings on a regular basis to continuously plan and re-plan can create burnout for many board members. If an organization has been neglecting it’s strategic planning the initial fact-finding and preparation may prove to require a bit of a time commitment. However, as an organization begins to develop its strategic planning system the BOD will be able to move quite effectively and efficiently through strategic planning process.

The following are some helpful suggestions in ensuring that your organization develops a sound strategic plan.

Know your mission
A common mistake in strategic planning is developing a plan based upon a snapshot of what is happening right now – not on what the organization wants to make happen. If the organization currently exists with severe financial constraints those constraints may dictate what the BOD thinks the organization can do. Instead of focusing on these constraints, a good strategic plan should ask what impact do we seek to make and where do we want to be in a determined amount of time? Once these questions are answered it is easier to align your plans and activities with the mission and goals of the organization.

Be prepared
The world we live in is dynamic and these changes affect our plans and goals – but they should never hinder our mission. Your organization can spend six months developing a strategic plan and the next day a horrific natural disaster occurs in the area you work or Bill Gates knocks on your door and offers you a million dollars. What do you do?

An organization needs a plan that allows the BOD to make decisions on new challenges/opportunities as they arise. In Nonprofit Strategy Revolution, David La Piana recommends developing 5-8 key decision-making criteria to help decide whether or not a particular strategy is consistent with the organizational identity. This should be heavily influenced by your values.

I am on the board of a nonprofit and our decision-making criteria is based upon undertaking strategies that are consistent with our mission; focus on our competitive edge; are financially sustainable; don’t result in debt for our organization; allow us to be the best in the field; and strengthens our position as a community partner.

As new opportunities come up, we run them through our criteria to determine whether or not we move forward. If we answer no to anything, we don’t go forward. If we answer yes to all, then we have to compare it to the other strategies we are moving forward on and decide which one makes a greater impact on our mission.

Other decisions that should be made up front include:
  • Who will you serve? Who won’t you serve?
  • Where will you serve? Where won’t you serve?
  • What money will you accept? What won’t you accept? (i.e. Recently a little league was out of money and going to have to close down ending the little league program in the town. A strip club came forward to provide the money they needed to continue services. Some were outraged that a kids’ little league accepted money from a strip club. They made the decision in a desperate mind-set rather than ahead of time. I’m not making a judgment call on whether or not they should have accepted the funds but it’s easier to make clear strategic decisions when an organization is not completely out of money.)
Holding tight to your mission and values, as well as following the decision-making criteria your organization has created allows you to remain relevant in the face of dynamic circumstances while still continuing to focus on the mission and strategic plan. An organization that sways in it’s focus and changes it’s goals continually will not succeed because it will never have the ability to monitor it’s growth if it keeps changing the goal line.

Regular Check-ups
So you have a plan in place – now what? A typical strategic plan looks 3-5 years ahead. For some, making plans can be a fun activity – but how do you execute a 5-year plan and make sure you stay on the path to achieving your goals? It is very important that after goals are created that align with the organization’s mission these goals are then broken down into timely action items and deliverables.

This is how we function in every other area of our lives. For example, in The Pollyanna Principles Hildy Gotlieb suggests that if we had a flight at 12:00pm we would figure out what time we had to get up by working backwards. “I have to get to the airport by 10:30 so I’ll have to leave by 9:30. I still need to pack so I need to get up by 7:30.” If this is a part of our daily living (creating timely action items and deliverables), then it should certainly be a process we implement in our strategic planning.

In addition to developing key action items and deliverables, the BOD is also responsible for developing systems for monitoring and evaluating the progress of the strategic plan. Creating an effective monitoring and evaluation (M&E) framework requires that the BOD include in the strategic plan key questions and time frames for M&E. Monitoring is the act of continually checking in on targets and activities planned throughout the course of a plan. Evaluating assesses what the organization set out to do, what has been accomplished, and how it was accomplished. These tools help an organization know whether the plans are working and empower the BOD to make changes as needed.

Some key monitoring questions could include:

  • Will the goals be achieved according to the timelines specified in the plan? If not, then why?
  • Should timeframes be changed? 
  • Are there adequate resources to achieve the goals (ie: money, equipment, training, personnel)? 


The frequency of reviewing the strategic plan depends upon the type of organization and the rate at which the organization is experiencing change. At the least, the BOD should monitor on a quarterly basis and the CEO monthly. Evaluating the organization could be on an annual basis.

While a strategic plan is key to the success of an organization, it is important to remember that it is a roadmap that often changes based upon internal and external influences. Learning to be a relevant organization with a firm mission while holding to a strategic plan will give your organization the strong foundation it needs for success.

Key Steps:

  • Know your mission 
  • Be prepared 
  • Regular Check-ups



Posted by Tiffany Applegate on August 30, 2012 at 12:15 PM
Categories: Board Governance
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