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Strategic Planning for Nonprofits

Strategic planning is the means of envisioning your organization's future and determining how to get there. It is different than traditional planning because it emphasizes the process in addition to the end product and includes your vision, creativity, values and organizational culture. Zimmerman Lehman recommends that organizations utilize strategic planning, but not every organization needs or would benefit from an involved process. Some will spend months developing a plan; others will take a day or less. The following describes both the benefits of, and procedures for, this type of planning.

Strategic planning is a tool for changing your mode of functioning from "reactive to active." You anticipate, plan and create the future. It stimulates creative thinking about the future. An important benefit of the process is team building that is nurtured by an inclusive process. Strategic planning can:

  • Stimulate ingenuity and new approaches
  • Increase everyone's investment in the organization
  • Develop a common vision
  • Clarify values and beliefs
  • Anticipate opportunities and obstacles
  • Provide a framework for day to day decisions
  • Create a marketing and fundraising piece

It gives you a road map to follow. The plan is an excellent public relations piece for funders as well as a blueprint for your organization's growth.

Planning to plan
Before beginning to plan check to see if there is a commitment to plan. Sometimes a dynamic leader sets the tone and does all the visioning. At other times, the culture is too divisive for good planning and it would be a waste of everyone's time. If the commitment of the board and staff to the process is lacking it can be costly and unproductive. Strategic planning is not right for every organization; the timing and procedures should be adjusted to fit your organization's level of dedication to the process, the resources it has to devote to the process, and its culture.

If the appraisal is positive you begin by developing a committee of interested and committed individuals. This group of stakeholders (strategic planning language for interested and key individuals), made up of representatives of staff, board members and interested volunteers, works together, often with the help of a consultant, to plan the process, assign tasks and give feedback.

Needs Assessment
Conduct an appraisal of your clientele, the community served, members, customers, staff and board to identify critical issues and opportunities concerning the future of the organization.

  • What are your strengths and weaknesses? (E.g. Strengths: the longevity of the staff, the stability of the funding base. Weakness: the lack of educational credentials.)
  • What are the critical issues for the future? (E.g. changing technology options, loss of key staff, purchasing a building, going national, etc.)
  • What opportunities face the organization? (E.g. recent publicity gives us wide exposure for the first time, increasing student population, taking greater advantage of the web, funding issues, etc.)
  • What threats exist? (E.g. government cutbacks threaten one of our programs, will technology make us obsolete? Competition for other similar groups, etc.)
  • What do clients/members need from the organization? (E.g. more or different services, culturally appropriate programs, etc.)

Take an environmental scan:

Analyze current and projected population demographics or other factors in relevant geographic areas in an effort to predict trends in demand for your programs and services in the coming years. (E.g. will we need to speak different languages for a growing immigrant population? Does an aging student base need different career choices? Will new diseases affect the health services that we should provide?)

Inventory of service:

What is your organizational structure? Who are you? What do you do? Collect critical documents for review and summary (e.g. brochures about organization, current statistics regarding breakdown of members/clients/students/budget, job descriptions, articles of incorporation, by-laws, board minutes, annual plan, etc.).

The needs assessment materials can be organized in an accessible manner to help with the planning process. Some organizations prefer to review all the material prior to planning a mission or vision for the future, while others like to use the material to identify gaps in services or programs to help inform the future vision. It is an important tool for both!

A clear sense of mission and direction inspires staff, board and volunteers, and encourages teamwork. It defines for the outside world who, how and what the organization is. Your mission statement should clearly state who your clients/members/students are, the services or products that you offer, and the means by which these services are provided. The mission of the organization is the reason for its existence and it should answer the questions:

  • What need do you fill? What niche do you occupy? What problem are you attempting to solve?
  • Whom do you serve? Who are your clients/members/students/population base?
  • What are your geographic boundaries?
  • How do you service your clients/members/students/population base?
  • How do you solve the problem? Through what methods and programs?

Examples include:

Advocates for Youth's mission is to reduce teen pregnancy throughout ABC County by educating youth in prevention and by building self-esteem in young women and men through peer counseling programs.

The purpose of the mission statement is two fold: to articulate your goals for all to see, and to determine whether new program ideas fall within the scope of your organization. If the Advocates for Youth's executive director were to approach her board of directors with plans to initiate a program to protect the health of infants, this would fly in the face of the mission statement, since serving new infants is not part of the mission. The board of directors could then do one of two things: either reject the new program because it does not fit within the mission statement, or make the decision to broaden the mission to include this new service. Obviously, changing the mission should not be done solely-or even primarily-to satisfy a funder.

An important part of strategic planning is envisioning the future of your organization -- What can you be? The vision constitutes a future image of the organization as efficient and effective and includes a picture of how the world (your client, environment, population served) would be changed if your purpose were accomplished. Many individuals have a difficult time brainstorming success or even thinking about what you could do if money were not a problem. They get stuck in the "that's impossible -why waste our time" mode of thinking. Zimmerman Lehman believes people need to dream and brainstorm the best possible scenario as a means to stimulate creativity. It is necessary to do this in an atmosphere in which no idea is ridiculed or dismissed. There is always time for reality checking, but not before everyone has been given a chance to visualize the best. This is where the excitement and buy-in can occur.

A strategy is a broad method or approach to be taken to accomplish a particular purpose. How can you best carry out your mission and implement your vision? What are the means that will get you to where you want to be? Creative and innovative thinking are vitally important.

One strategy might be to focus on prevention services for your clients or create a particular education or service program that serves your population's needs (identified as an unmet need in the assessment area). Another might be to develop an individual donor base to help increase resources or create a technology-based education program. Still another strategy might be to utilize litigation or a media campaign to influence public opinion. Often there are competing strategies or too many strategies to tackle all at once. This is where your needs assessment comes in. You apply what is known as a S.W.O.T. analysis. This looks at the organization's strengths (S), weaknesses (W), opportunities (O), and threats (T) to decide which strategy is wisest for your organization.

Goal setting focuses on defining organizational aims/purposes for the next three to five years, and objectives set a quantifiable standard for each. Goal setting helps by setting a specific time to complete each objective. Identify realistic goals and measurable objectives that utilize the best strategies for creating your vision of the future. Each goal and objective can be prioritized as part of the planning process. This makes the evaluation process much easier. Depending on time and resources, organizations can choose a few areas to work with set goals and objectives.

Examples include:

  • Goal -- to educate young people about prevention of pregnancy. Objective -- we will serve 500 young women and men in our peer counseling program next year.
  • Goal--to increase our client/student/member population. Objective-- we will increase the families we serve by 5%, expand our student population by 10%, and increase our new donor base by 20%, all within three years.
  • Goal-- to educate our volunteers. Objective -- we will provide 15 trainings a year. Action planning. What are the steps we need to take to accomplish our objective?

The planning process should include a pragmatic action piece that outlines major activities and tasks: with who, what, and when.

STRATEGY: Recruitment

GOAL: Increase youth membership.

OBJECTIVE: Increase youth membership by 5% a year

TASK: Complete youth recruitment brochure

WHO: Program Staff

WHEN: By May, 200x

If time permits, a useful step is contingency planning to overcome potential obstacles. What programs do we cut if our funding is reduced? How will we work around the restrictions if the guidelines are changed? What if we don't get the building? What is our fall-back position if the initiative fails? How do we deal with a public relations disaster?

The Plan
How can life be given to the vision? Draft a document that will be a useful internal tool and also an excellent representation of the organization's vision, mission, values and goals. The public plan can include highlights from your needs assessment. The organizational plan should include the pragmatic action plan and a financial projection and budget.

A realistic plan is the basis for fundraising: savvy donors and funders will want to know prior to making a donation that you have a plan of action for the future. This level of planning makes it easy for donors or funders to see what you want to accomplish and also that you have the means to do it, and that all that is lacking is the funding

A crucially important last step is to plan for evaluation. A regular review at board or staff meetings is helpful to review:

  • Are we meeting our goals?
  • Are things running smoothly?
  • Do we need to make changes?
  • Was our thinking fuzzy?
  • Have things changed unexpectedly?
  • Do we need to implement alternative plans?

While some organizations can grow or survive without strategic planning, most would benefit from a process that creatively envisions your future, creates the roadmap for getting there, and builds buy-in along the way. Planning is a critical need that takes time and resources but if done intelligently will go a long way toward guaranteeing your organization's success.

Copyright 2007 Zimmerman Lehman.

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Copyright © 2005, Zimmerman Lehman