5 Ways to Translate Strategy into Commitments and Results

In our study of Nonprofit Performance, in partnership with The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, the data suggest that many Atlanta nonprofits do not have a strategic plan robust enough to guide the organization’s work. This needs to change and plans need to be executed. Cindy Cheatham, VP for GCN's Nonprofit Consulting Group, offers her expertise on how high-performing organizations develop and implement their strategic plans.

How many nonprofit leaders get excited about the hard work of strategic planning? In my experience there are few—but the few stand out. In a time of increasing competition and measurable outcomes, your commitment to strategic thinking, and translating strategy into action, is essential.

GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group works with dozens of nonprofits annually to guide them in developing plans that will drive results for their community. Through the years, I’ve noticed several obstacles that most organizations need to hurdle along the way. For example, nonprofit leaders are stretched thin: many are drawn to the vision and the program, but resist the hard work of designing a plan that is operational. In addition, nonprofits have a complex obligation to hear from a wide range of stakeholders, who provide important input to the process.

“Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”
Peter F. Drucker

Finally (and importantly), most strategic plans aim for growth. Growth typically means raising more money—at a time when competition for funds is fiercer than ever—and successful growth in fundraising frequently requires upfront investment at a time when available capital is scarce.

Strategic plans that involve key stakeholders—board members, partners, donors, community leaders, and staff—are much more likely to have critical “buy-in” and to be driven by important internal and external insight. Plans that create a motivating vision while aligning fundraising, stakeholders, and key strategies will provide a roadmap for successful execution—a concrete way to achieve that vision.

Here are some planning practices that stand out among the high-performing nonprofits with whom we’ve worked:

  1. Plan to plan. 
    A key part of any strategic planning effort is taking the time to outline the planning process so that it involves the right people and brings internal and external data toward decision-making. We recommend planning for a 6-month process.

  2. Build a culture of planning into the regular operations of your organization. 
    Tie strategic plans to annual operating plans and performance plans—that is, strategy (and its execution) should inform the way you regularly focus and align your people and resources.

  3. Make sure you ask the big questions. 
    For example: If we are statewide, how can we deliver in other markets cost-effectively? Can we deliver similarly? Do we have the program to achieve our aims?

  4. Include inspiration, fun, and celebration in your planning.
    After all, your board, volunteers, and staff are typically working harder during a planning process.

  5. Be sure your plan includes a commitment from the people (and earmarks sufficient resources) who will be necessary to achieve your prioritized goals. 
    As Peter Drucker so aptly says, “Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes; but no plans.”

Remember, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are many successful approaches to strategic plan design and several good templates available. For one example GCN uses, check out Bridgespan’s Living Into Your Strategic Plan.


Cindy Cheatham is VP for GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group. You can reach her at [email protected]


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