Welcome Aboard the Strategic Planning Ship
For just a minute, think of a nonprofit as a ship bounding on the waves of an unpredictable sea, sometimes sailing true and sometimes fighting a storm. Whatever the day’s weather might be, an organization’s strategic plan can serve as its anchor, keeping it rooted as conditions change. It is not only essential to project planning and delivery, but is a mainstay in seeking grants and other funding by providing an organizational context in which a particular project can be understood.
A strategic plan determines where an organization is going over the next period of time, how it's going to get there, and how it will know if it arrived at its destination. It does so by prioritizing goals, objectives, activities, and outcomes—those things that steer the boat in planning what it intends to achieve (goals), its long-term impact (objectives) , the steps it will take to have this impact (activities), and how it will measure what it has accomplished (outcomes).
There are a variety of ways to approach strategic planning depending on an organization’s culture, complexity, age, and other factors. Many strategic plans cover a 3-year time period, but the plan can be longer or shorter to best fit an organization’s needs. However, without a clear strategic plan, the organizational ship can spin in the night instead of reaching its home port by delivering high impact programs that make a difference in its community.
It’s no secret that developing a good strategic plan takes a significant commitment of time and effort from staff and board (and sometimes actively involved community members). Unfortunately, requiring this level of commitment can lead to “achievement fizzle.” People are busy or don’t see the need. “We’re doing OK,” they say. “Our programs are happening and our staff is hanging in there.” One organization I work with, which provides low-income women with support and training to become employed in a tough economy, is experiencing this very thing. More people are seeking its help but exciting new program ideas are not being implemented, fundraising efforts have small returns, volunteers come and go, and the staff is verging on burn-out. Not surprisingly, its current strategic plan is badly outdated and its overworked board is not committed to developing a new one.
Even when an organization is ready to move forward, finding a skilled and affordable strategic planner can be a challenge. Some organizations try to do this internally by having a board or staff member lead the process, which virtually guarantees trouble focusing objectively on the task. Others bring in a volunteer from a local nonprofit or business, who may or may not have the particular knowledge and approach that will work best for that organization. Even paying a consulting specialist doesn’t guarantee success if he or she is not a good fit with an organization’s mission and vision, or with its communication style.
So—how can an organization best launch a successful strategic planning ship long before it needs a lifeboat? Following these steps can help create a productive and effective strategic planning session:
- Start simple—but start!
- Appoint a Strategic Planning Committee—several board members and one staff person, if your organization has staff, to coordinate the strategic planning session.
- Use local contacts, professional organizations, internet sites, and other sources to identify potential strategic planners.
- Develop an interview mechanism that captures your organizations’ priorities and style, someone who can help you identify the person best suited to lead your strategic planning session.
- Agree on how much money you can spend on the planner. Payment can be in the form of a contracted rate or stipend, but even a volunteer planner should receive a small “thank you” for their work (such as covering travel expenses or giving a gift certificate to a local restaurant).
- Identify several dates when all board members and staff can attend, and issue a “save the date” email or letter.
- Decide how long the planning session will last. Less than one full day may not be enough time to complete a detailed strategic plan; more than two full days will likely stretch everyone’s ability to participate.
- Interview and select a strategic planner at least two months before the planning session.
- Have a formal agreement for services signed by both your organization and the strategic planner.
- Once hired, communicate regularly with the planner on the session’s structure and implementation. Be prepared to provide him or her with any assistance they need.
- Make sure the planner provides a clear session agenda.
- Make sure the planner will provide detailed notes and other information relevant to the session.
- Select a comfortable and appropriate site.
- Give an incentive for participation by providing food and beverages—anywhere from a simple snack to a full meal.
One important element that is seldom included in a strategic planning session is developing a “next steps” chain. Strategic plans generally cover what the organization wants to achieve over a period of time, but seldom include a process for how and when the plan will be implemented. As a result, many finely crafted strategic plans end up on the bookcase gathering dust. Work with the strategic planner to include an implementation timeline as part of the session. The timeline should identify who will be responsible for implementing what sections of the plan, when each section will be implemented, how the board will review progress, and how adjustments will be made if the ship is sailing off course.
Sailing the strategic planning ship is work, no doubt about it, but the rewards are many—including a strong base for getting grants. Happy sailing!
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