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Strategic Planning for Nonprofits

Strategic planning is essentially an organization alignment process. That is, it attempts to provide a nonprofit with an integrating mechanism that focuses on a desired future, confirms the organization’s mission, establishes long term goals and establishes a short term action plan to achieve its goals.

To do this, the strategic plan should include the following four aspects:

Define exactly who your nonprofit client is and what are the desired impacts that client wishes to accrue from your nonprofits services or programs.

While a for-profit organization always knows what it is striving to achieve (a profit), nonprofits’ objectives and effectiveness are more subjective. At its core, nonprofits provide a service and/or program to meet a defined community need. The wide parameters around this need, as well as the funding available to support the organization, may cause the organization to pursue clients who do not need what the nonprofit offers, provide services or programs that cannot be supported financially or experience an unintentional erosion or expansion of its mission due to the subjective influence of key board or staff.

Specifying exactly who the clients are for your nonprofits services or programs, and exactly what benefits (or outcomes) the clients desire provides the nonprofit with the focus for its strategic plan. This means not starting with organizational goals, but with clearly defined outcomes desired by clients that have indicators of success. It is, after all, the impacts and changes that happen to the clients that become the nonprofits’ equivalent of the for-profits’ real indicator of success—profit.

Involve the perspective of the multiple stakeholders of the nonprofit in the process.

An environmental scan makes the multiple realities visible.

The initial process most beneficial to a nonprofit in its strategic planning process is the environmental scan. That is a process that seeks the input and perspectives of the multiple stakeholders involved with the nonprofit. These stakeholders can be the board, staff, volunteers, clients, funders, partners, government, suppliers, etc. They all have a role in supporting the potential success of the nonprofit, and they each have a unique and valuable perspective. By strategic planning with input from just the board and key staff, an organization gets a very insular and limited view of itself.

An environmental scan makes the multiple realities visible and compelling to the organization through a process that asks, “Who do we need to hear, what do we need to ask, how do we need to get that data and who will be responsible for getting it?” Once the data is collected and organized, both client impacts and organizational issues will be illuminated for the nonprofit to begin strategic planning.

Establish goals that align the nonprofit’s organizational structure and objectives with its client’s desired impacts.

Upon completing the environmental scan, defining the client and establishing desired client impacts, the nonprofit needs to view its vision and mission as the means to meet desired client impacts. This a way of grounding the mission and vision in the realities of client needs. The vision speaks to the ultimate impact that the organization wants to have on the community, and the mission makes clear to everyone what the nonprofit currently does, who it does it for and what impacts it will have.

Then, the process needs to establish strategic goals for the four basic strategic areas for all nonprofits. These are services/programs, funding, community engagement and infrastructure. Most, if not all, strategic goals and strategies will be focused on these areas:

- What needs to happen to what we offer our clients (programs and services)?
- Where will we get the funding to assure our sustainability (resource
- How do we get known in the community (marketing and communication)?
- In what ways do we improve upon our own organization’s performance
  (board, staff, systems and physical plant development)?

Integrate the long term strategic goals with short term operating plan and action steps.

A one year action plan becomes the actual strategic assignments for board and staff to address.

Once the strategic goals are established, the strategies for achieving these are developed. These strategies are generally 3-5 year strategies, depending upon the arc of the strategic plan. It is unrealistic to develop an action plan for 3-5 years, as specific accomplishments and changing conditions can not be accurately gauged for such a period of time. 

Therefore, a one year action plan, integrated into the operating plan of the nonprofit, becomes the actual strategic assignments for board and staff to address. It becomes the agenda for the board for the coming year and pieces of the staff’s annual plan that gives emphasis to both operating and strategic needs. This integration provides the proper balance between planning and acting to assure movement against the strategic plan. The key is to make this challenging but not overwhelming. Remember, the nonprofit still has to meet its day-to-day responsibilities.

Neil D. Sklarew is Senior Consultant with GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group.


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